Each month, 72-year-old Sandra Bursch withdraws $4,200 from her retirement savings to cover her bills. A chunk of it goes toward paying college bills — for her grandson Gage. She anticipates doing the same for Gage's younger brother, Mason, when he graduates from high school in another year.
Every stitch of their clothing, all of their meals and day-to-day expenses have been her responsibility since 2003, when drug use by her daughter and son-in-law prompted the police to remove the children from their home.
"My biggest concern is I won't be here long enough to see them finish their education," said Bursch, who lives in the Tujunga area of Los Angeles. "I'm using all of the money I have to raise the boys. That's all I care about now, that the kids grow up, finish school and that they're okay."
Among the thousands of families filling out financial aid applications and struggling to save for tuition, there are grandparents such as Bursch facing the same financial responsibilities but with limited resources. Their second run at parenting arrives as their earning potential winds down and retirement kicks in with a fixed income never meant to cover the cost of college.
"These are folks who had moved on with their life and then now emotionally, socially and financially, they have to change their mind-set and get back into the parenting mode," said LD Ross Jr., vice president of programs for the District of Columbia College Access Program, a college advising group widely known as DC-CAP. "Some of them had more resources when they were working, but now that they're retired it's difficult. It's a labor of love."
For some grandparents, helping a grandchild earn a degree means spending a few more years working. For others, it is a matter of tapping into savings they had squirreled away for the next stage of their lives. Resources exist for grandparents, but some of that aid is not widely available and information can be hard to come by.
Nonprofit and government organizations are stepping in to help grandparents navigate programs designed to help them with child rearing, especially as the need grows. There is no definitive data on the number of grandparents paying their grandchildren's college tuition. But with more grandparents serving in custodial roles, higher-education costs are a looming concern.
Census Bureau data shows about 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, up 7 percent from 2009. A quarter of these families are living in poverty.
Drug addiction and an increase in women being incarcerated are among many reasons why grandparents are gaining custody, said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generation United, a nonprofit group.
She said states are sending more displaced children to be raised by relatives because youngsters tend to fare better with family members than in foster care. The trouble is, support for these families is far from comprehensive.
Having a firm grasp on the support services available from the outset can affect how grandparents cover the costs of college in the long run. The federal government established grants several years ago to pay for programs that help caregivers in the child welfare system access legal, financial or social services. These programs, however, exist in only about 20 states.
Nonprofits such as Generation United are filling in some of the gaps. The organization, in collaboration with the American Bar Association and Casey Family Programs, runs a website, Grandfamilies.org, with information and resources organized by state.
There are even colleges offering grandparents guidance. The University of Central Oklahoma, for instance, hosts workshops on applying for scholarships and on financial planning for people raising their grandchildren. The sessions were a natural fit in a state with one of the highest percentages of grandparents providing custodial care, in large part because of female incarceration rates, said Glee Bertram, a professor of family life education at Central Oklahoma.
"A majority of the grandparents who attended had never gone to college, so it was overwhelming for them," she said. "Some didn't have computer skills to start the application process, so we had our admissions officers walk them through it. Many just needed to know there is support out there."
Even with the network of social services and support groups, a significant divide exists in financial assistance afforded to grandparents.
Those who adopt their grandchildren out of the foster care system or become licensed foster parents often receive money from the state until the child turns 18. That financial assistance can allow grandparents to save for college, said Sylvie De Toledo, founder of Grandparents as Parents, an organization in California that supports grandparents. She said retired grandparents receiving Social Security benefits can also have a portion of that money set aside for their adopted grandchild.
Bursch has saved the money she received from the state after adopting her grandsons out of foster care, creating a trust for the boys in the event of her death. The boys came to Bursch and her husband emotionally scarred and in need of love and patience, she said. There were rough patches, especially when the boys' parents and grandfather died, leaving Bursch to care for the boys by herself.
Children who have lived in foster care are eligible for discounted tuition at some public colleges and universities. They can qualify for education and training vouchers of up to $5,000 a year through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But for every child who enters foster care with relatives, 20 are being raised by relatives outside of the system and without access to the benefits extended by state and federal authorities, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Many grandparents step in before child welfare agencies get involved, and as a result are unaware they could become a licensed foster parent and receive financial support. And others are never told about their options. Even when they are aware of all their options, grandparents may choose to avoid being monitored by social workers.
"They're balancing access to a full range of financial support and other services, with questions about the level of engagement they wish to have with the child welfare agency," Peterson Lent said. "Grandfamilies may be fearful that a child welfare agency will all of a sudden decide to take the child. There are a lot of things to weigh."
Sonya Begay's three grandchildren — Damian, now 20; Lea, 18; and Kayle, 16 — spent eight months in foster care before the state of Kentucky placed them with her in 2005. She said she never received any state benefits because the children did not remain in the system for long. Begay shared custody with their father, her oldest son, as he struggled with a drug addiction. She took all three with her when she relocated to Washington to work as a policy analyst for the Labor Department.
When Begay's son was murdered in 2010, she quit her job and moved back to Kentucky with the kids. And for the next few years, the family had to live on the $3,000 a month the children received in Social Security survivors benefits because Begay could not find work.
"We were denied food stamps and public housing because the kids received too much money from Social Security," said Begay, 60, who now lives in Frederick, Md. "Doing all of this on my own was so hard."
By the time Damian was ready for college, Begay landed a job at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. But Damian chose to stay in Kentucky and enter Job Corps, a federal career-training and employment program. Now, he is considering a career as a pharmacist and looking to enroll in a tribal college. Because he and his siblings are Navajo like their grandmother and father, they can qualify for grants, scholarships or tuition waivers at several colleges and universities.
Navigating the higher education system can be overwhelming for grandparents who have gone years, if not decades, without having to help with applications and financial aid forms.
Reaching out to high school counselors is vital, especially when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, said Ross, from DC-CAP. The federal government and colleges use the application to grant students access to more than $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study money.
One of the problems grandparents face with the FAFSA is figuring out who should be listed as the parent on the form, Ross said. Most of the students his advisers encounter who are living with their grandparents have not been adopted, which means they must include the tax information of their biological parents. That can be difficult for students whose parents are incarcerated or otherwise not in the picture.
In those cases, the Education Department recommends students request that a college financial aid office review their application. Administrators have flexibility to grant students a waiver known as a dependency override, but only on a case-by-case basis. Schools are under no obligation to offer the exemption to students whose grandparents are their legal guardian.
Bursch's grandson Gage did not qualify for financial aid to attend Los Angeles Valley College because of the income she draws from her annuities, she said. He was, however, allowed to register for classes early and provided counseling on campus because he was in the foster care system.
To keep costs down, Gage chose to live at home while pursuing an associate degree in kinesiology. After graduation in May, he plans to transfer to California State University at Northridge to complete a bachelor's degree in the same field.
While Bursch has covered the costs of community college, she said her grandson will use the $14,000 in the 529 college savings plan that she and her husband established for him as a child. The savings plan allows families to invest without the earnings being taxed, so long as the funds are used to pay for college expenses. The money, she said, was not enough to pay for four years of college, but it will give the boys a chance of graduating without a lot of student debt.
"I'd tell everyone now to go talk to them at the college and find out what they can do for you. I didn't know to do that," Bursch said. "I wasn't aware of what was out there, and I suspect many grandparents are in the same position."