COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is trying to increase the chances for youth in Ohio’s foster system to earn college degrees.

The House Higher Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday morning to send out House Bill 164, which would set aside $15 million over the next two years to create a foster-to-college scholarship program. The scholarship would be for any Ohio resident who was placed in foster or non-certified kinship care on or after their 13th birthday.

More than 80% of foster youth go to college, but only 3% end up graduating, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. A scholarship would have been a “game-changer” for Caidyn Bearfield when she was in the system, she said.

“No one should have to choose between meeting their present needs and setting themselves up for success in the future,” Bearfield said.

Bearfield ended up graduating with a two-year degree in four years. There’s nothing wrong with taking more time to graduate, she said, but she would have earned her degree sooner, if not for housing insecurity and other issues that forced her to take time off from school.

Resources for former foster youth helped Bearfield succeed, she said, but several resources came from pandemic funding. She said she’s nervous for future students in similar situations.

But some of those included pandemic funding, which makes her nervous for future students in her same situation.

“It would be an enormous game-changer in care to have known that if I could just make it through this hard time, I would have the means at the end of it to create a better life for myself,” Bearfield said.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dontavius Jarrells (D-Columbus), said the benefits of the bill — and the costs of foregoing it — outweigh its price tag.

“If we do nothing, these youth are more likely to have a criminal record, go into our prison system,” he said. “What are we doing to ensure that we’re providing a stable environment as these youth transition into adulthood?”

According to the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, 40% of young adults who were in foster care do not have a high school diploma, more than half were unemployed at 21 and more than 1 in 3 experience homelessness.

“I am 22 years old, and I cannot count the friends and kids I grew up with who passed away on my fingers,” Bearfield said. “These numbers are terrifying, and it is beyond heartbreaking the danger youth put themselves in when they feel they have no other options.”

The bill would also require the state’s chancellor of higher education to hire four full-time employees to help foster youth navigate the scholarship program and path to higher education.

“This is a starting point,” Jarrells said. “If there is a huge demand — which I believe ultimately there will be — we will have further conversations about what else we can do as a state.”

Because HB164 has a monetary appropriation, it will go to the finance committee before getting a house floor vote.