Many of the 920 children on Vancouver Island who live under the continuing care of the government face a bleak future. Separated from their parents, often the victims of past abuse or neglect, they see a university education as a vague dream.
That dream could become a reality for some of them, as Vancouver Island University becomes the first in the province to offer free tuition to children in care. The pilot project will waive tuition fees for those who have grown up in the system, demonstrate financial need, are accepted by the university and are recommended by a child and family services agency.
The Youth in Care Tuition Waiver Program is the first response to a challenge issued in June by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province's representative for children and youth. She urged B.C.'s colleges and universities to give these young people a chance that most of them could never afford.
For youth leaving government care at age 19, tuition can be an insurmountable obstacle, considering about half of them apply for social assistance within six months after they "age out" of the system.
Studies suggest that young people in care are 50 per cent more likely to go on to post-secondary education if even partial tuition is provided.
VIU is the first institution to step up - and with a program that pays full tuition. That's $4,200 a year for a four-year degree program.
If this project can encourage new high school graduates to go on to university, it might also encourage younger students to stay in school, knowing that college or university is potentially within their grasp.
In 2010/11, only 41 per cent of children under continuing government care graduated from high school, the highest figure in six years.
Anything that improves that number, to open doors for more of these young people, is an investment that could pay off both for them and for the rest of us.
With a college or university education, they are more likely to find a job that will keep them off the welfare rolls. People with good jobs are usually healthier than their unemployed counterparts. They are also less likely to run afoul of the law. All those things produce happier, more successful people and less cost to society.
The program is expected to make a difference for aboriginal youth in particular, who make up 63.8 per cent of the children on the Island who are under "continuing custody orders." Of course, tuition is not the only cost of higher education. Accommodation, books and other expenses are also barriers. VIU is looking for ways to help students with those bills.
How many students will be helped? That's not clear because most struggle in school. Ralph Nilson, the university's president, says the school is working with agencies to identify possible candidates, but the number is not large. He said that last year, no student in care in B.C. successfully completed Math 12.
Improving these students' performance in high school obviously has to be part of the puzzle, to give them the grounding they need to get into university.
For most of the children in care, life started out badly. For a relatively small investment, our colleges and universities can take up Turpel-Lafond's challenge to give some of them a chance at a better future.
Vancouver Island University is the first institution to accept the challenge. The Island's other schools should do the same.
This editorial first appeared in the Times Colonist.
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