TEXAS VIEW: UTSA’s fostering education success program is a state model

More than 80% of 17- and 18-year-olds in foster care say they want to attend college, but only 20% enroll and only a fraction of those earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Would-be college students who grow up in Texas’ foster care system often slip through the cracks.

But this editorial is about how that is not happening in San Antonio. This editorial is about not just beating the odds but improving them by getting young people to and through college via the Bexar County Fostering Educational Success program, which began as a pilot in 2019.

Program leaders aim to increase the college retention and graduation of children who spent time in foster care; ensure that foster children understand college is expected and achievable; and make the program so successful, it’s replicated throughout Texas.

The University of Texas at San Antonio is leading the program, but it’s not doing it alone. UTSA is joined by the Bexar County Children’s Court, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, the Alamo Colleges District and Child Advocates San Antonio, among a long list of other agencies, organizations and nonprofits.

The program has led to these higher education institutions waiving about $14 million in tuition and fees. And the retention of students in the program, such as 21-year-old UTSA senior Gabriella Bocanegra, now mirrors the general retention rate.

This success takes a monumental commitment from a multitude of diverse leaders.

Peggy Eighmy, first lady of the University of Texas at San Antonio, is credited with pushing for the program, but she cites 32-year-old Krizia Franklin’s simple but profound statement in 2019 for garnering support from lawmakers in Austin to fund a small pilot program: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for me to age out of foster care and graduate from college.”

Bexar County Associate Judge Charles Montemayor presides over the Children’s Court College Bound Docket. Often sporting a college sweatshirt, he sits with foster care children to discuss their goals and how he can help with college applications and deadlines, housing and more, as a parent might. Nearly 75% of the 1,051 students who have participated in the program were enrolled at state public colleges and universities.

The effort is a prime example of genuine, bipartisan collaboration that is focused on solving an issue in a way that changes lives. The program’s impact on improving college enrollment, retention and graduation rates for students with lived experience in foster care is becoming a blueprint for the state.

“Everybody in this room believes with every core fiber in their heart and soul that an education is one of the most important differentiators and the trajectory of an individual’s life and the generations that come from that education,” UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said during a celebratory panel event Friday, Nov. 3. “It’s the greatest equalizer.”

Eighmy also called the program a “marvelous, grand experiment in ensuring student success.”

The program began as a pilot project funded by a $3.5 million appropriation from the 2019 Texas Legislature. It wouldn’t have happened without the sponsorship of state Sens. Pete Flores and José Menéndez, and state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer.

The program has grown with additional funding from the city, state and federal governments, as well as private donors.

Fischer reminded those in attendance at the Friday, Nov. 3, event that the program’s level of collaboration and outcome “rarely happens in Austin.”

And while this is true, it also conjures visions of what could be in Texas. Imagine what could be accomplished in Texas if efforts were focused on solutions and outcomes, not points of division.

We applaud UTSA and every supporter of this program. Of the 51,000 children in this state’s foster care system, nearly 5,000 reside in Bexar County. Each one deserves a fair opportunity to thrive in college and pursue a meaningful career.

Our entire state will benefit from such outcomes. But, most important, helping those who grew up in our foster system has the potential for generational change.

San Antonio Express-News