New scholarship program to help foster children get through college

When kids leave foster care they have to make a decision: A job, or college? A new scholarship program tries to tip the scales toward education.

Students wearing masks on Penn State's University Park campus. (Min Xian/WPSU)

Students wearing masks on Penn State's University Park campus. (Min Xian/WPSU)

A new college scholarship program has launched for young adults that are aging out of the foster care system.

The Lenfest Immensitas Scholars Program, using the Latin term for “boundless,” is funded by $1.8 million from the Brook J. Lenfest Foundation and administered through the Philadelphia Foundation. The program will fund winning applicants with money to pay for room, board, and expenses associated with being a full-time college student.

To help students pay for tuition, Immensitas will lean on the state’s Fostering Independence Through Education Tuition Waiver Program, a grant program of Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

Brook Lenfest, the son of philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, is a real estate developer preparing to open to major new high-rise hotels (a W and an Element) in the next two months. His philanthropic foundation has mostly focused on personal betterment issues such as education and job training.

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Recently, Lenfest’s attention has turned to young adults aging out of foster care programs. As kids turn 18-21 (depending on where they are and what programs they are in) they are cut loose from support, and can be cast out into the job market unprepared and with no safety net.

“This country has the reputation of [people] having the ability to come from a modest background and be very successful. I think the one thing that sort of equalizes people’s potential is education,” said Lenfest. “But what isn’t really equal in the country is the educational quality that everybody has available to them.”

Just how vulnerable foster children are when they leave the system is unclear. The Philadelphia Foundation estimates that just 3% of foster children in college make it to graduation, but Lenfest said he has heard many, varying statistics. The only thing the numbers have in common is the fact that they are very low.

“I’ve heard a whole bunch of different information … I mean, that’s kind of the problem,” he said. “What are the statistics? I haven’t found anybody that can agree on what they are.”

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The Immensitas program will not just to encourage more foster kids to pursue a college education by paying their expenses, but help identify just what the reality is for this demographic.

The short-term goal is to provide 100 students with financial aid by the start of the 2021 fall semester. The program has partnered with four area schools to find potential recipients among their applicant pools.

Harcum College in Bryn Mawr will take the lion’s share, using the Immensitas program to usher 80 students toward a two-year associate degree. The Penn College of Technology will have ten scholars through the program, and Penn State University and West Chester University will each have five.

Lenfest says the program will be a success if ultimately he can see an uptick in the graduation rate. “Are we able to get more people who are in foster care, who are making the decision between the workforce, or full-time student, or part-time student/part-time workforce?” he said. “The goal would be to attract more people to pursue an education who might otherwise not have.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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