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Thousands of Colorado foster youth could soon have access to free college tuition

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Tori Shuler beat the odds. When she earned a history degree from the University of Colorado, she joined just 3% of foster youth around the country who graduate from college.

“I pulled loans and did everything I could,” she said. “I worked sometimes 60 hours a week, always two jobs in college just to get through so that I could have that accomplishment because it meant so much to me. “

Shuler also had something many foster children lack when they leave the system on their 18th birthday: ongoing financial help from foster parents.

They kept her dream alive by providing housing and fixing her car when it broke down.

“If they hadn't been there and I would have had to switch from being someone who drove (a car) to someone who rode the bus, I would have had to drop a job,” she said. “I couldn't do that. I would have had to drop college.”

Today Shuler is hoping to improve the odds for those foster youth who are not getting the help she had. She says the stakes are high.

“The person who's going to change the world is probably waking up in a foster home today, potentially the person who could solve cancer and, you know, greenhouse gases,” she said.

But Shuler says if that person is growing up in Colorado, they are at a huge disadvantage. It is one of only 15 states in the country not covering tuition for youth who grew up in foster care.

“Leaving foster care feels like they push you up this mountain and then they leave you at the top, and you can either figure out how to get home from there, or you can fall off the side and there's no support,” Shuler said.

A group of state lawmakers is trying to help.

Their bill would spend an estimated $693,966 each year to cover tuition at public universities and trade schools for all foster youth growing up in the state. If they enroll, the state will pay for it.

State. Sen Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is leading the effort.

“We should embrace this challenge because our foster youth deserve better,” she said at the bill’s first hearing.

Her bill will also give foster youth a liaison to help fill out paperwork and apply for the benefit.

It has some bipartisan support. But some Republicans, including Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument, are not on board. He says he is skeptical the tuition waivers will have the most impact.

“In government we tend to sometimes, I think, begin to believe that policy actually changes things,” he said. “And the reality is it's people that actually change other people's lives.”

Meanwhile, foster youth who have gone to college without the state covering their tuition say the money would have had a dramatic impact on their lives.

Tori Shuler says if Sen. Zenzinger’s bill had been in place when she went to college, she would not have had to take on student debt and would have attended law school.

She currently works for a nonprofit that aims to help foster youth succeed.

“And I do love the work that I do,” she said. “I think I would still be doing the same type of work if I had a law degree, but I think that it would be more powerful and that I could do a lot more if I had had that support early on in my education.”

And Shuler sees benefits in the bill going far beyond increasing college graduation rates for foster youth.

“Having that crucial support during those critical years after care means that we're going to see less people committing suicide,” she said. “We're going to see less people turning to crimes of survival and ending up incarcerated. We're going to see less people feeling so desperate that they turn to human trafficking.”

State officials say more than 4,000 youth are leaving the foster care system each year and would be eligible for the new tuition money. Democrats advanced it after its first hearing, but more debates are delayed until the state’s budget hearings take place later this month.

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