Bridging the Gap Between Foster Youth and Higher Education

Amy_570We know a lot about the grim educational outcomes of foster care youth —low high school graduation rates, low rates of college access, and low rates of college persistence and graduation rates. What we know less about are the efforts that have been implemented across the country to address this important social problem. More than 300 program developers and researchers across the country have joined together through the National Consortium on Foster Care and Higher Education Research to work together to collect and share the research findings of evidence based programs that have been implemented across institutions of higher education across America. A sampling of these stories are shared below.

Amy M. Salazar, MSW, Ph.D., Washington State University
As support continues to grow for helping foster youth attain higher education, one complicating factor is that we don’t really know how to most effectively support foster youth in achieving their higher education goals. In the absence of scientific evidence about what programs and supports are most helpful, independent living programs, local colleges and universities, high schools, and youth-serving non-profits are doing their best to try to support the post-secondary goals of youth based on practice knowledge, youth feedback, and the research evidence that we do have on the factors associated with higher educational attainment for youth in care. In a recent study I conducted to develop a higher education access and retention intervention for youth in foster care, my research team conducted focus groups with youth with foster care experience, child welfare workers, and representatives from colleges, universities, and youth-serving non-profits to ask them their recommendations for designing and implementing programs to support youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood in accessing and being successful in higher education. We collected a wide variety of recommendations, ranging from those having to do with building community collaborations and involving youth in program development and implementation, to those dealing with program staff characteristics (for example, being strengths-based and proactive in their support of youth), to those focusing on specific types of supportive programming (mentoring, educational advocacy, substance abuse prevention). These recommendations can be found in the following article, which is free to access here.

Debbie Raucher, John Burton Advocates for Youth
Charting the Course: Using Data to Support Foster Youth College Success provides information on the educational experiences of foster youth attending a subset of community colleges and universities in California. While there are some bright spots, the data show overall that foster youth enrolled in California’s community colleges and universities disproportionately face serious academic and economic challenges compared with non-foster youth, and are not being adequately served by federal and state programs, including financial aid programs. Particularly troubling was the finding that only 50% of foster youth attending California’s community colleges received a federal Pell grant, despite at least 85% meeting income eligibility requirements. Various studies have found that financial aid is a strong predictor of degree attainment among vulnerable students. As such it is likely that the report’s findings showing wide disparities in course completion, GPA and persistence rates could be significantly impacted by strategies that improve access to financial aid for foster youth. California is currently considering Senate Bill 12 (Beall), which seeks to do just that. The bill, sponsored by John Burton Advocates for Youth, includes three provisions. It would require county child welfare agencies to identify a person to assist foster youth with applications for financial aid, streamline the financial aid verification process for foster youth who apply through FAFSA, and expand an existing on-campus based support program for foster youth, thereby enabling more foster youth to receive the support they need to succeed. A recent study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that 94% of California’s foster youth express a desire to attend college and yet research shows that only eight percent will do so by age 26. SB 12 will help these youth turn their dreams into degrees.

Christine Norton, Texas State University
Campus support programs for foster care alumni (FCA) are in important part of improving higher education outcomes for former foster youth. These programs need to utilize a strengths-based perspective, which can address the unique challenges faced by FCA by a) promoting positive identities as survivors of trauma, b) respecting autonomy, and c) mobilizing assets of resilience, perseverance, and community. The strengths perspective is not redundant with traditional higher education retention models, and in the three areas identified, is diametrically opposed to the students’ previous experiences with the foster care system. For this reason, Federal and state legislatures need to encourage all two year and four year public colleges and universities to identify a campus advocate for former foster youth, and also provide funds for colleges and universities to develop campus support programs in order to create campus and community networks of support for former foster youth. When this occurs, research has shown that former foster youth can achieve the same graduation rates as non-foster care students. Specific data to support this assertion can be found here.

Jacob Okumu, PhD , Ohio University, Athens
Transitioning into college poses significant challenges for all college students. However college transition programs for former foster youth ought to be tailored to focus more on building consistent, trusting relationships with their college peers, faculty, and staff. Here at Ohio University we have begun that initiative by identifying and revamping our institutional policies and programs that contribute to feelings of isolation and estrangement for former foster youth as they transition to college and we are making appropriate accommodations for the youth joining Ohio University from foster care. Some of the interventions include campus based alternative family-themed gatherings during the school year for student integration and engagement and alternate housing during breaks, among others. We have also initiated formalized mentoring relationships extending throughout the college years between new and returning students with foster care experience to provide opportunities for them to develop valuable interpersonal relationship and leadership skills while supporting holistic identity formation. We meet them one-on-one every week for mentoring relationships in order to allow us to know them well enough to care about their development as whole people and to build a mentoring relationship based on trust. Learn more on Ohio Reach here.

Linda Schmidt, PhD, Yvonne Unrau, PhD, & Maddy Day, MSW, Western Michigan University
Readiness for college engagement among students who have aged out of foster care compares self-reported readiness to engage in college between a sample of college freshmen who aged out of foster care prior to or while attending a large four-year public university and the national freshman population. Results indicate that students from foster care are significantly different from their non-foster-care peers in their readiness to engage in college. The results also show that foster youth are less well prepared academically upon entering college and this performance gap persists through the first semester of college. The findings align with the growing number of research studies that show college students who have aged out of foster care are more likely to drop out than their non-foster care college peers. The study’s findings reveal that college students from foster care view themselves differently than other students thus identifying them as a distinct population on college campuses. As such, the findings support the strategy to ensure that college campuses have identified staff who can act as champions and point persons when students transition from foster care to college. In Michigan, the impetus to bring “foster youth” champions to college campuses involves a unique relationship between the Department of Health and Human Services and colleges in which the DHHS bids out funding to provide support to hire independent living skills coaches on campuses. The 2017 report of The American Freshman: National norms fall 2016 provides further support that former foster care youth in college distinguish themselves from the average first-time, full-time, first-year student, which obliges campus leaders to assess whether and how existing policies and programs meet the needs of this population.

Sylvia Sensiper, PhD, University of California, Davis
Over the last four years, UC Davis has conducted a research and implementation program with California alumni of care who are interested in advanced degrees, the Guardian Professions Program. Our research demonstrates the success of California’s undergraduate support programs for former foster youth, as 81% of the 72 students who were provided support had also received assistance at the undergraduate level. The explicit “pay it forward” attitude among these alumni of care resulted in a majority of our students finding a primary professional motivation in ‘giving back’ to their communities. Over 57% of our students are studying in the “helping professions”: 13% of our students have chosen careers in the health fields, including medicine, dentistry, physician assistant studies, physical therapy and psychological counseling, 22% of our students are becoming social workers, 15% are working on teacher credentials, and 7% are interested in educational leadership. Other GPP associated students are doing impactful work in research, policy and business. Our research demonstrates a continuing interest among these young adults, a finding that is also noted in the University of Chicago’s Findings from the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (Courtney, et al 2016), which found that 33% of youth in their survey expect to continue beyond their undergraduate studies. Our research also indicates that alumni of care who are interested in advanced degrees need assistance with three primary aspects of the process:

  1. Understanding careers and professional trajectories
  2. The associated costs, i.e. test preparation, application fees, and campus travel
  3. Self-presentation, i.e. creating application essays that highlight their accomplishments and put their foster care experience in perspective.

For more information visit Prep4Grad.

To learn more on the Consortium, please contact co-chairs Dr. Angelique Day, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington Seattle, at or Dr. Jennifer Geiger, Assistant Professor, Jane Adams School of Social Work, University of Illinois-Chicago, at