report we released in February 2024 found that foster youth at SUNY who received funding from the Foster Youth College Success Initiative (FYCSI) tended to reenroll after their first year of college at higher rates than their peers; they also tended to post higher graduation rates for associate degrees and, after six years, bachelor’s degrees. This episode of Policy Outsider goes beyond the numbers to hear from an FYCSI award recipient and an FYCSI advocate how this funding can change the trajectory of students’ lives.


  • Tanajah Malachi, Licensed Master Social Worker, FYCSI Award Recipient
  • Deidra Nesbeth, Director, Fostering Youth Success Alliance
  • Brian Backstrom, Director of Education Policy Studies, Rockefeller Institute of Government

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  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Joel Tirado  00:10

    Welcome to policy outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, I’m Joel Tirado. In February, we released a report on a state level initiative to provide financial support to college going foster youth, the New York State. Our report, written by Director of Education Policy Studies, Brian Backstrom took an early look at the impact of the foster youth College Success Initiative at soon. The report showed some promising results for the initiative. FYCSI award recipients at SUNY tended to reenroll after their first year at higher rates than their peers. They also tended to post higher graduation rates for Associate Degrees and after six years bachelor’s degrees. on policy outsider Brian and I wanted to go further to get a sense of what these awards mean to these students. To that end, we reached out to Tanajah Malachi, a Licensed Master social worker from Brooklyn, and a former FYCSI award recipient. And Deidra Nesbeth, director of the fostering Youth Success Alliance, which was a driving force behind the creation of New York’s FYCSI program. We wanted to ask them why they thought this program was needed, who it helps and how and what further work can be done to improve college going and completion for foster youth. That conversation is up next.

    Joel Tirado  01:51

    Deidra, Brian, Tanajah. Thank you all for being here. As I mentioned in the intro, the Rockefeller Institute recently released a report on the foster youth College Success Initiative. So Deidra, I wanted to start first with you. With all the college aid programs out there, there’s the Federal Pell grant aid for students from lower income families, New York State tap, the Excelsior scholarships that cover 100% of tuition at SUNY schools, others as well. Why was a program like the foster youth College Success Initiative needed? What makes it different from some of these other college aid programs that are out there?

    Deidra Nesbeth  02:38

    Thanks so much for that question, and really honing on and that there are differences to the foster youth College Success Initiative Program. You’re right, that there are these other types of aid. But as I’m sure you remember, college is really expensive. And it’s not just the cost of tuition. There’s also the cost of attendance. That’s other things that could include my books that includes transportation, housing, all of those different expenses. So a lot of us with the foster care background, they’re already getting that tap grant that Pell Grant, they don’t always get the Excelsior scholarship, because that will end up it might get maxed out from that. But there’s still gaps that are really coming up for young people. That can be anything from where am I going to have my housing? Where am I going to get funding if an emergency expense comes up? I know, when I was in college, if I had an emergency or I had those additional expenses, I was really able to lean on my parents as a support for our young people with a foster care background. That’s not an option all of the time. And so making sure that there is somewhere to fill in that full cost of attendance, making sure that young people No, I do have resources to have not just a college experience, but a more normative college experience is super important. The other piece that I would want to point out is that we know that the college journey might not be a linear path specifically for our young people with a foster care background. And so not having an upper age limit on foster youth College Success Initiative funding is something that is really helpful. It means that a young person can access this at any time that they may be on their college journey. They also don’t have to meet satisfactory academic performance requirements at any point with any of the aid that they may receive through the college initiative. And that can really make the difference in filling in some gaps when a young person may be struggling in just navigating life circumstances and also still trying to be really focused in on their education.

    Joel Tirado  04:56

    I really liked that filling in the gaps piece because I think that Those gaps, you know, that’s on the aid side of things. But those gaps really can make all the difference in whether or not students persist in in college going. So thank you. At the Institute, we looked at some of the data around the foster care aid program. And so we’re gonna talk about that in a little bit. But before we got too far into the conversation, we really wanted to make sure that we talked about some of the human impact of this program. And so, you know, we invited Tanajah to be on the show and Tanajah, I just wanted to turn it over to you and hear from you. You know, what did this program mean to you?

    Tanajah Malachi  05:47

    Thank you. Um, I think, for me, it meant a lot, right. So as as, as a college student, my expected family contribution was zero, right. And that means a lot because it means I had, there was no way that anyone could help me pay for college expenses. And as teacher said, like, Yes, I did qualify for TAP, I did qualify for the Pell Grant, I did qualify for all those things. And I got those in my package. But there was still so many more 1000s of dollar that still needed to be filled up. And when I actually got the call from Deidra, I went back and to actually go look at the numbers, how, how it looked, when I went when I went to Brockport University, and how much funding I got. And I remember, like, there only being just looking at it, like tap gave like 2500, but foster care gave me 4300, right, it always filled in that gap. And I always got the maximum out. And because I got that funding, I was always able to make sure that I didn’t pay anything out of pocket by the end of the semester. And I think what people forget about college is that, um, it’s not just tuition and board and fees, right. It’s like, I had to figure out how I was gonna do laundry, they don’t, they don’t provide you detergent. And when you when you go to college, no one’s providing you bedding, no one’s providing you the utensils to eat cereal. And because I didn’t have any of those family contributions, I had to figure those things out on my own. And, and that’s kind of where the funding came in. Because when I got that funding, it was a I was able to get refunds and use that refund money to actually fun my expenses during the time I was at college. And the thing about SUNY is that there’s breaks, right, and you get mid semester breaks, you get winter break, and Lola talks about that transition, right? When you’re feeling safe at college. And you look here, I’ve made it past that first billing cycle, like, this is kind of like my little home for now. Dinner like, Hey, you gotta go for a month. And you’re like, huh, like, you’re like a views? Because you can’t stay. And he’s like, Alright, so how do I get back, I actually went to I went to Brockport, and I was from New York City. So the six hour bus ride, that I now had to like, figure out how much I can travel, how much I could kind of take with me back to home that’s at the time was very unstable. And I didn’t want to go, but to even stay on campus during a break, you need to take classes. And you in order to get funding to take those classes, you have to take a minimum of at least a nine to 12 credits to get to get funding. And even that wasn’t enough to that was just enough to give make sure you have money to take classes, but not enough to fund housing during that time. So and that’s kind of where foster care funds kind of came in for me was like, just to stay on campus. I took those classes, even though I didn’t want to take classes. But I needed definitely to stay on campus. But I also needed to stay to stay where I was and make sure have food to eat, when to travel. And I think that’s where it made a difference for me. I never had to really worry about being hungry, like I never had to worry about like where’s money is gonna come from. I I rarely worked on college because of the refunds I got, like, I kept that money just for what it was needed. And that’s what it is. And that’s how it kind of helped me, in a sense. And I say all this because honestly, I did finish with my bachelor’s when No, with no loans, and many people can’t say that. But it was grant it was because of the money I got from being a part of it. And just also there’s also a second grant. I forget what it’s called at the moment, but as also Foster Care grant that that you can get don’t even remember the other one.

    Deidra Nesbeth  09:43

    Thinking about at meet. Yeah.

    Tanajah Malachi  09:46

    ETV so ETV funds is also a really great, that kind of couples with foster care. So it also gives you money so that you can kind of like and that one’s like, you kind of give them like a budget and a tomtom. Tell them like what you You kind of need a floor and it kind of gives him the money that way, which is still super helpful in that sense. So I think for me, this program has really helped me just kind of survive, you know, four years of college, in which I knew there was no way anyone’s gonna be able to help me. And although, although I did have some love and support from some adults in my life, a lot of the money came from just the free money that I got from tap, pal FICC. And without them, I really wouldn’t have been where I am today.

    Brian Backstrom  10:37

    Do you ever think what might have happened if you didn’t get the foster youth College Success Initiative Grant?

    Tanajah Malachi  10:45

    Of course, I do. I do all the time. And, like, it’s, it’s honestly been a great path to walk, I think I think about all the time because, like, now I am a licensed master social worker. And I do have my bachelor’s and my master’s in social work. And I think about like, wow, like, it took a lot to really make sure I focus because it’s so easy to get torn off the path in college where like, you can lose funding, right? And so many, I’ve seen so many people fail out and I think so many people just struggle to like make it to a semester, and not saying I didn’t I just struggled sometimes it’s just I know that if I didn’t have it, I just I would have to take those those loans, right, I would have to do it. Either way, this was always gonna be my path, right? My The only thing I’ve ever known was died by if I wanted a good job had to go to college, if I wanted to be something better than where I where I grew up, I had to pursue education. Right. So I think having these funds just made it easier. So that now I feel so free. I feel like I don’t feel the weight of the loans that loud people do feel at the Golden college. And I feel like out of out of all I’ve endured as a foster child, having no debt is like, wow, finally, like someone sees me finally, like, I’m winning. Yeah, only winning. So I think that’s kind of what it is for me is that I finally get to win

    Joel Tirado  12:19

    in Asia. That is that is just I’ve chills over here. It’s it’s first of all, congratulations on getting your Bachelor’s and Master’s and and it really, you know, talking about those, those little pieces that are big pieces, you know that the housing issues the that the bedding, you know, the things that people really don’t think about and and how this funding can make the difference between continuing or not continuing or continuing with loans and having that that weight. Deidra do you find in your conversations with other foster youth that that Tanajahs experiences is fairly typical of the the experience of foster students?

    Deidra Nesbeth  13:11

    I do. Tanajahs, that it perfectly, of course. And as you were talking Tanajah, and maybe think of a quote that I bring up, often from a young person of this funding was the difference between if I can have one meal a day, or if I can have multiple meals a day. And that is so profound to me. And just thinking about I know, when I’m hungry, I’m not my best self, I definitely cannot focus to think about my education. Think about my day to day tasks and young people. And our students with a foster care background are no different than any of us in that regard. And so providing for those most basic needs, lets young people in that place where they don’t have to just think about surviving, they can truly think about how do I want to show up? How can I thrive and think about what my goals are? And what supports on campus I can take advantage of, what can I lean into to really have that next step on my path of what I want my future to look like, instead of feeling like I have to think about just making it moment through moment. That is a game changer. And really being able to pursue an education for the value of learning and growing more so than just, I’m here. But I’m not really getting to take advantage of the experience or I’m here, but I might have to think about it. Right. I have to leave to provide for my most basic needs.

    Joel Tirado  14:46

    Yeah, yeah. That’s thriving peace. Well, thank you, that I think really situates you know, the research that we’re going to talk about a little bit now. In the human context and human experience, and so Brian who did the research here at the Rockefeller Institute? I think, you know, Brian, if you could just talk a little bit about the report and the data that you use and the findings. Yeah,

    Brian Backstrom  15:18

    I think it might be the first time that anyone’s really looked at how the program is doing. We did look at the data, do a little bit of a deeper dive into how this support program is helping foster youth who are attending SUNY schools. I think first, and maybe this is a good question for you. Deidra, is it seems like more and more students are tapping into the program each year. Do you think there’s a growing need? Or a growing awareness of the program or both?

    Deidra Nesbeth  15:50

    Yeah, I definitely think it’s a little bit of both. growing awareness is definitely happening at Pfizer, or at the foster youth success Alliance, which is a statewide Alliance really focused on the advocacy led by young people, we think about how we can get the word out about the college initiative. Often, it’s a big part of our work. And so that’s looked like making some changes in collaboration with higher education services corporation, Administration for Children’s Services Office for Children and Family Services, SUNY, CUNY and the State Education Department. And make sure that the tap application lets young people be directly linked to a consent form that’s needed to access the foster youth College Success Initiative. I say all of that, to really say that, that means that a young person isn’t having to know this initiative already exists, to be able to access that support that is there for them. So a young person just filling out their tap application, they’re able to say, Oh, hey, this is a resource I qualify for. That’s one way to build awareness and lets them know something that is available to them. We also have worked alongside young people to build different support resources, such as something called the making college success guide that lives online and is able to walk through what are different options to navigate my college education in terms of the expenses, and also give some best practices and a human side of how to support you with a foster care background on that journey. So all of those things in combination with working with a team of amazing youth advocates every year, really helps to grow awareness of the program. In addition to that growing awareness, I think that feeds into the growing need, the more young people know, this is an option or the folks supporting them know this is an option. It really creates that confidence that this is even a possibility that I can take that it’s something that I can afford. And so then young people who maybe we’re thinking about college, because we know about 60% of youth with a foster care background want to attend college, they then say I can actually actualize that. And so then we have more students enrolling and the need goes up. So I think it’s a combination of both.

    Brian Backstrom  18:22

    I think that’s great work and very important work that you’re doing some of this data that we saw some of the results we saw were that students with foster youth experience, might get an award one semester, but not the other semester, or might wait until the third semester to claim it. And that’s where it conjured up in our minds this big question of Do they not know about it? Do they not eat it? And I think the work that you’re doing is really fundamentally important to that type of public education, public awareness and participation campaign. So I think you’re doing great stuff. One of the things that we did see some results that seemed awfully promising increased two and three and four year graduation rates for associate degrees, and even higher six year graduation rates for bachelor’s degrees, do you think this program is really making this kind of difference?

    Deidra Nesbeth  19:20

    I do think it’s making that kind of difference to really increase those graduation rates and support young people on that journey. I think it goes back to something that we talked about before and that Tanajah really summed up so well of helping to move from that place of me thinking about just how am I going to meet these basic needs, to really being able to focus in on education. We know that just not being able to have the place to pause and think about what are my goals can really be detrimental for a young person. If a young person is thinking I need to choose between working housing, and education. And then also throw in there, I have to think about whether or not I’m going to eat. It’s not easy for someone to weigh all of those, and then say, I’m still going to show up to class every day and be able to focus in on graduation, when we take those barriers away, and really work alongside young people to do that. We’re setting them up for that success of those higher graduation rates. The college initiative as any change it’s made along the way. And even the idea of the college initiative really came from young people saying this is the support that I need. And so that piece of listening to the needs of young people, and then making sure that we advocate for a program that’s responsive to that makes a huge difference, in really helping to support some of those results that you saw when you were looking through the data. I

    Brian Backstrom  21:07

    really enjoyed undertaking this analysis. And I know that the governor requested an increased appropriation for this program for the coming year, we’ll see how that goes in budget negotiations. But I hope that we had Rockefeller Institute get a chance to look at this program, again, down the road, when we have more longitudinal data when we can really tie this type of support that the students say they need to outcomes, successful outcomes of college.

    Joel Tirado  21:38

    Yeah, and, and D just sort of building off of what you were saying about how the initiative emerged out of what foster youth and youth generally were saying that they needed? What, what are you hearing now in Tanajah, you know, feel free to jump into with your perspective on this, you know, building out of what young people are saying, What things do you want to see happen with the foster youth college succession initiative in the next couple of years?

    Deidra Nesbeth  22:18

    Thanks for asking that love the opportunity to dream and vision a little bit. So some things that we would love to see are really thinking about how, of course to continue funding the program and to grow funding for the program. Because as more and more young people access the initiative, we want to make sure that that funding on the table is still supporting young people in the adequate ways that they need, of course, growing awareness and building that data story. So we definitely hope there can be more opportunity for the Rockefeller Institute and others to look at this data going on. But also focusing in on of course, there is the financial piece of what it looks like what what are the supports on campus as making sure that we know those exist, but making sure that we’re helping to equip campuses to think about what does it look like beyond just giving that financial piece, but also what are those support services, many campuses have them baked in, but making sure that every campus across state really is able to provide that the other pieces that come to mind to me and from young people are thinking about sometimes we have groups of young people who may not fit into that federal definition or that state definition of a foster youth, but have really similar circumstances. So how can we think about ways to support those young people on their journeys, as well as thinking about what our next steps Tanajah shared, getting her master’s degree and that’s something that right now the college initiative supports up until your bachelor’s degree. So really thinking about how to support young people through different steps in their journeys? Because yes, getting us and Associates in a bachelor’s degree equips you in so many ways, but wanting to really walk the rest of that journey alongside young people and thinking about ways to make that happen. Are some of the next things on our mind.

    Tanajah Malachi  24:25

    I have to agree. I think it’d be great if if these funds was able to be used outside of the bachelors However, I did have ETV funds, which helped me my master’s. I think just kind of just making sure the age range is okay too, because I happen to just start when I graduated high school, but sometimes it does change. Just it does vary when people start college, but overall, I think consistency is something that I would love and dream for. I just happen to kind of stumble upon it just happened to find a counselor That One immediate took one Mr. C wanted to help me and want to make sure I had all the supports away from college. And there was so many times where I had to be like, hey, like microcircuit funding is in my package. And then, because I’ve changed counselors, people are like, What are you talking about? Like we will not that is, right. So I had to genuinely fight for it to be put in my package, because it was so unknown about it. But I was like, if you look in the previous year, you can see a habit there like, and just constantly having to be my own advocate for funding I know that was owed to me, was a little frustrating at the time. But I will say just making sure we’re consistent making sure that college admissions counselors also know about the program, but also High School advisors as well about it, it’s super important that it’s just consistent all around. And that is a well known thing, that if you do have foster care background, that this funding is available to you. And here’s the age range, here’s what here’s the criteria for it, and how you only need to sign up once to get the funding and you don’t have to keep signing up every semester. I think that’s one of the myths about it. And that’s just something that’s really important for me, it’s just that consistency all around them and making sure that we’re putting people in the position to advise others on colleges or advise others on what are their goals at the high school will cause or want to go to, they shouldn’t be able to understand the fundamentals needed for those of foster care backgrounds.

    Joel Tirado  26:32

    Thanks again to Tanajah Malachi and Deidra Nesbeth for joining us on the show and helping us better understand the human impact of the foster youth College Success Initiative. Thanks also to Brian Backstrom for helping lay the groundwork for this conversation. links to more information about the initiative as well as the institute’s report can be found in the episode description. I’m Joel Tirado, and this is policy outsider. Thanks for listening.

    Joel Tirado  27:04

    Policy outsiders presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, the Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at Rock or by following Rockefeller Institute. That’s ai n s t on social media. Have a question, comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]

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