Applying to university as a care leaver
For care leavers, applying to university can throw up issues and obstacles, but there is plenty of help and support available during and after the application process.
Financial support is available
For most students, 'student finance' (or student loan) is the usual way to get funding for university.
Student loans may sound overwhelming, but you only start paying off your loan once you earn over a certain amount.
The issue for most students is how much maintenance loan you can get. As a care leaver, you may be able to apply as an independent student, if there's no contact with your parents, and are likely to be eligible for the maximum amount of student finance.
Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland
Care leavers in some areas of the UK may also get student support that doesn't need to be repaid.
Maintenance Grant (or Special Support Grant, depending on your circumstances).
Welsh Government Learning Grant.
A bursary specifically for care-experienced students of £8,100 per year. Students getting this cannot also apply for a maintenance loan.
Definitions of care vary across the UK, so check with your student finance company about the support available. In general, support is not available once care leavers reach the age of 25 or 26, but from 2020, the age cap for students in Scotland was removed.
In addition, some students may get extra support based on their circumstances. For example, those with a disability (learning differences such as dyslexia, or a long-term physical or mental health condition), or those with children to support.
Exclusive to care leavers
While maintenance loans go a long way to covering the costs, additional funding is often necessary to help make ends meet. Thankfully, in addition to bursaries and grants available to students, there are many that are almost exclusively on offer for care leavers, depending on where you live in the UK.
Setting Up Home Allowance (Leaving Care Grant)
Your local authority may pay a grant up to £2,000 to help care leavers.
Higher Education Bursary
This is a bursary paid by your local authority (in England and Wales), entitling students to a payment of £2,000. There may be other financial support for students from Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Some charities will award grants to care leavers with the aim of helping cover the cost of household items, education costs, training and employment. Grants are usually only made if you've tried all other options. Examples are Buttle UK, the Rees Foundation, the Care Leavers' Foundation, and Capstone Care Leavers Trust (for England and Wales).
The Unite Foundation Scholarship Scheme
This scheme, in partnership with 27 universities, offers 90 care leavers a scholarship of free year-round student accommodation with no bills for three years of study. You can also receive opportunities from Unite's sponsors including work placements and mentoring schemes.
Many universities offer scholarships and bursaries for care leavers, although these may only be available to those under the age of 26.
When applying for university via UCAS, tick the box on the form that asks if you've been in care. You may worry about identifying yourself as a care leaver, but the information will be confidential and can open support from your university, possibly including financial or practical support.
Universities also have emergency funds for any student in financial difficulty.
Students in Scotland
Scotland's educational institutions have backed a proposal to offer guaranteed places to care givers. Any potential student who has been in care at any point will be offered an unconditional undergraduate place at 18 Scottish universities and educational colleges as a way of increasing the number of students from this demographic.
Most universities provide year-round accommodation for care leavers
According to Propel, many universities provide 365-day accommodation for care leavers. Check with your choice of university, or search via the Propel website to see which universities offer this.
Even if a university doesn't say they offer year-round accommodation, don't be put off. They may be able to offer support for holiday accommodation as well, so it’s worth asking.
Speak to your local authority – they have a duty to provide care leavers with vacation accommodation or financial assistance if you can only get university accommodation during term-time.
Care-experienced Scottish students can apply for a Vacation Grant from the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS). The Vacation Grant is paid to the accommodation provider, which can include friends, relatives, or your foster carer.
If you'd prefer your own place, the university accommodation team may have a list of approved landlords. Some universities may be willing to act as a guarantor for accommodation.
Some students may want to remain in their care placement while they study. Several schemes across the UK now enable this:
- 'Staying put' in England
- 'Going the Extra Mile' in Wales
- 'When I am Ready' in Northern Ireland
- 'Continuing Care' in Scotland
However, there have been reports of care leavers sometimes being charged money for these placements, so check whether going into higher education will cause any issues. If you have any concerns, it is worth getting in touch with support charities such as Who Cares Scotland or Propel.
Extra support is available
There are a number of websites and support services to help care leavers:
The Propel website enables you to directly compare the support on offer to care leavers at different universities and colleges.
Most university websites will list the support they give. Universities also take account of your circumstances if you've ticked the box identifying yourself as a care leaver on your UCAS application. For example, from 2020, Scottish universities have guaranteed an undergraduate place to care leavers who meet the minimum entry requirements. Similar flexibility is available at most universities, offering lower entry requirements to take account of the extra difficulties you may have faced.
If you don't fit the formal definition of a care leaver, but you've got no contact with, or support from, your family, Stand Alone can offer support. This charity offers advice and online support groups for people estranged from their parents.
Similar to Stand Alone, Buttle UK offer financial support to young people who receive no support from their parents or guardians.
In England, there's mentoring for care leavers via Brightside, which can include supporting students applying to college or university.
Your teachers, personal tutors and careers advisors should support you with deciding whether going to university or college is right for you. Your designated teacher and Virtual School Head should be able to help with more specific advice.
Help before you go
Other help for care leavers before going to university may include:
- Assistance with travel to university interviews and open days
- If you are in further education in England, the 16–19 Bursary Fund can help towards the cost
- University summer schools
- These can give a great introduction to university life and can also demystify the process of applying to university. More information can be found on individual institution websites
Find out more about Become and Propel
This article has been written with Become, the charity for children in care and young care leavers. Become runs Propel, a higher education website for young people with experience of care.
Visit the Propel website for more information and guidance.