Opinion

We Must Change the Narrative About College With Youth Who Have Experienced Foster Care

foster care: Students walking around college campus

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While many high school seniors receive acceptance letters from colleges across the country this spring, young people who have experienced foster care are mostly just trying to survive. We need to do a better job at helping youth with foster care experiences have a better chance in life.

Education, particularly higher education, can change a life, one’s trajectory, and the intergenerational patterns of inequality and poverty. However, compared to a third of Americans earning a bachelor’s degree in their lifetime, only 3% to 5% of youth from foster care will graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

foster care: Jennifer Geiger (headshot), assistant professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work, smiling woman with long blonde hair, earrings, maroon blouse.

Jennifer Geiger

More than 440,000 children are in foster care in the United States and about 20,000 will age out each year, meaning they leave care at the age of 18 or 21 (depending on the state) without being adopted, entering into a guardianship or being reunified with a parent/caregiver. That’s 20,000 young people who, often abruptly, become fully responsible for their own housing, health care, employment, education and well-being without the support of others.

Given that approximately half of adults still live with their parents between the ages of 18 to 24, this reality is particularly troubling. Young people rely on their parents for financial, social and emotional support as they become adults and as a safety net when things don’t go as planned.

Young people in foster care are rarely afforded this luxury. Research has shown that many struggle to meet their basic needs and are more likely to become homeless, have an early pregnancy, be incarcerated and use substances than their same-aged peers. As youth with foster care experiences struggle to find their way, attending college is often a pipe dream, when it could be their ticket to social mobility, stability, health and happiness.

In general, getting ready for college takes a lot of work. There’s the SAT/ACT to schedule, practice for, take a course to prepare for. There are campus visits, identifying financial aid and housing options, applying for scholarships, writing college essays and getting letters of reference. College admissions committees consider extracurricular activities, GPA, transcripts, class rank to assess the applicant’s ability to succeed at their institution.

These expectations are no different for youth with foster care experiences. However, meeting the same requirements can be much more challenging for someone who has been in foster care. Youth with foster care experiences, particularly adolescents, experience placement instability, often living in multiple homes and settings throughout their time in care and prior to care. This translates into instability in schools, peer groups, contact with siblings and the inability to participate in extracurricular activities.

In addition, young people report difficulty in getting documentation required for college applications (e.g., school transcripts, testing results), finding suitable adults who can write letters of reference or identifying someone to talk to and ask questions about applying to college and college life.

Create a new norm

We are learning more about the successes and challenges foster care alumni are experiencing with accessing and succeeding in postsecondary education, but there is still much we don’t know, and very little progress has been made around improving outcomes among these youth. There have been good policy changes and improvements in the supports offered on some college campuses and in the community.

For example, there are 23 states that have tuition and fee waivers for youth who have been in foster care. More and more campus-based support programs have been developed and grown in the last five years. But if we can’t get youth to college, this isn’t helpful. The child welfare system and our state agencies are not doing what they could to ensure that youth who have experienced foster care are getting a fair chance at being successful in college. We, as citizens in our communities, are not doing enough to support these youth and we are not pushing our policymakers to make changes.

There are several things we can do on an individual and system level to improve access and success for youth who have experienced foster care. As a whole, it’s critical that we create a norm for education by changing the narrative and the culture around our expectations and confidence in young people in care about their ability to succeed in college.

To do this, we need to start the conversations about college early — the earlier the better. Start talking about different jobs, colleges and options when youth are preadolescents. These messages should come from different sources — foster and kinship caregivers, teachers, counselors, mentors and child welfare workers.

Young people should know there are options for education and training depending on their interests and needs. Four-year colleges are not the only and/or best option for everyone. There are exceptional community college and trade school options that can be just as fruitful in terms of financial, health and social well-being. We can help youth develop an interest and talent in an area by exposing them to different experiences in science, math, music, arts, volunteering, technology and trades.

We can promote “normalcy” by advocating for policies about getting driver’s licenses, allowing youth to stay at a friend’s house and permitting them to take part in extracurricular activities and programs, as any other youth would be able to do reasonably. This also requires that we work harder to ensure stability for kids in care. That is, minimize the number of placements, place children in familylike settings and with relatives and kin when possible, and keep them close to the things important to them — extended family, schools, and culture.

Research tells us that facilitating and fostering relationships for youth in care, especially with regard to education, is critical for a healthy transition into adulthood. In fact, this might be the most important way to help mitigate the negative outcomes among youth with foster care experiences. Young people need someone they can talk to, who is there for them, to believe in them and to give them information to make choices about school and life.

Help strong networks to be built

Most importantly, they need someone who will not give up on them. It’s important to create and nurture relationships among youth with foster care experiences on and off-campus. Young people often report feeling isolated, different and worried to talk about their experiences of being in foster care with people who don’t understand. By connecting students with similar experiences with each other, we can help facilitate a supportive network they can rely on while in school.

When I worked with the Bridging Success-Early Start program at Arizona State University, we found that a key component of student success was their connections to each other. These relationships that formed before school even started lasted into their junior and senior years (so far).

Another way to get students excited about college is to take them there — let them see and hear what it is all about. Campus visits serve as a way to get information, but also to gauge whether the campus itself is a good fit for the individual. It’s important for a student to feel connected to the school, other students and the campus in order for them to be successful. A sense of belonging can enhance educational persistence and success. A great nonprofit here in Illinois, Foster Progress, takes students on “college road trips” to get them thinking about what it would be like to be there as a student.

Many factors play into where students apply to attend and ultimately enroll. Other ways we can help ensure a smooth process is to have information available about financial aid, scholarships, housing, health and mental health services, clubs and social experiences, transportation, admissions process and other supports geared toward youth with foster care experiences.

Several new and long-standing on-campus support programs exist across the country that provide an array of services and supports to students with a history of foster care, including pre-college programming in the summer, peer support and mentorship, financial support, workshops, dedicated space to study and hang out, advocacy and access to faculty and unit leaders.

Some of these programs also provide mental health services, which is a crucial and often underutilized service for students. College is hard. Dealing with family and past trauma is extremely hard with the pressure of life’s demands are upon you. Colleges need to consider using a trauma-informed approach when working with students in general and should be better informed about the typical needs of students who have experienced foster care.

Youth in foster care are one of the most educationally disadvantaged groups. All of us need to focus on changing our language, our expectations and our practices in working with youth in care and those with a history of foster care. Every youth who has been in foster care has the ability to go to college, trade school or land a good job after high school — like everyone else. They need just as much support and guidance as any other young person in getting there. As individuals and professionals, we need to do better in getting them there.

Jennifer Geiger is an assistant professor at The Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a passionate teacher and researcher, and a strong advocate for accessible postsecondary options and educational success for young people with foster care experiences.

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