With growing awareness of the challenges young people with experience in foster care face in accessing and completing college, it is more important than ever that college campuses and society at large work to change the existing narrative.
Despite research indicating that a vast majority of foster youth aspire to attend college, they attend at less than half the rate of their peers. Retention and graduation rates are even lower. Though estimates of the number of foster youth who ultimately obtain a bachelor’s degree vary, it is widely agreed upon that less than 10% of former foster youth in the United States graduate from college.
Children enter foster care through no fault of their own. Once they are removed from their families of origin, they become the responsibility of the agency charged with their care. As a society, these are our children. And yet, for every metric you can imagine, foster youth fare worse than other children. We are failing them.
Higher education offers the opportunity for foster youth to circumvent poor life outcomes through the many benefits it offers. Foster care alumni who have completed a post-secondary degree display greater gains in adult life circumstances than the general foster care population.
We owe it to our children to make success in higher education attainable.
Financing college a unique struggle
Foster youth, especially those who have aged out of the foster care system, are likely to experience significant financial barriers to attending college. In addition to attempting to independently manage tuition and fees, students with experience in foster care typically have little family support and often no secure housing during school or on breaks.
Room and board at residential colleges and universities is expensive. Alternatively, if a student does not live on campus or attends a school without housing, they will be on their own to come up with living expenses. Foster youth often lack financial support, both from their biological families and foster families. For youth who transition to college from a congregate care setting in particular, there may be no parental figure available at all.
Foster youth are unlikely to have an adult available to co-sign for student loans, making the ability to pay for on-campus housing or general living expenses that much more difficult. Due to their lack of adult guidance, foster youth are particularly vulnerable to predatory practices and committing themselves to repaying college loans that can cripple them financially for years to come.
A 2017 review by Education Commission of the States reports that 28 states offer some form of state-level tuition waivers or scholarships to college students who have been placed in foster care. Although the benefits and eligibility criteria vary by state, the concept of a tuition waiver is to provide foster youth with an additional source of funding to make college attendance financially possible.
Typically, waivers cover tuition and fees at public institutions for students who meet the stated criteria. This provides an important piece of the financial puzzle and, coupled with other available grants and funding streams, is an essential resource to promote higher education success for foster youth.
Though an excellent starting point, a waiver of tuition alone may still leave foster youth struggling to pay for the true cost of college attendance.
Connecticut offers a particularly impressive waiver program for its former foster youth. For youth adopted from the foster care system or those in care on their 18th birthday, a comprehensive package of waived tuition, fees, room and board is available at select public institutions.
By including room and board in the legislation, Connecticut removed a major barrier to college attendance for students who have spent time in foster care. After exiting foster care, these young adults are unlikely to have the safety net afforded the average college student. A financial package that includes housing could be the difference between homelessness and stability.
Campus support programs
Even for students with experience in foster care who surpass the hurdles and matriculate into college, continued educational success is a challenge. Foster youth rarely make it beyond their freshman year. In addition to the desire for higher education institutions to provide supportive services to students who are struggling, there is a solid argument for the many benefits to the school from an increased investment in foster youth.
Colleges and universities have a vested interest in improving retention and graduation rates. Developing additional supports for foster youth on campus is low-hanging fruit; we already know that this is a population who experiences lower graduation rates than other students, even compared to those who are first generation and/or low income.
Foster youth, and the institutions they attend, could mutually benefit from the development of campus-based support programs.
In simple terms, campus support programs provide an array of financial, academic, social, emotional and logistical supports to help foster youth stay in school and graduate. Campus support programs offer foster youth the kind of comprehensive, wraparound services that are needed to fill the gaps often experienced by students who have had familial, economic and educational instability.
There is no singular national model for campus-based support programs for foster youth. Campus programs can be part of a formal statewide network or ad-hoc programs on individual campuses.
Programs like Great Expectations, a partnership between Virginia’s community colleges and philanthropists operating on the majority of the state’s community college campuses, can be instrumental in helping foster youth succeed in higher education and beyond.
Fostering Success Michigan is one example of a statewide initiative to support improved college outcomes for students with experience in foster care. This initiative offers a variety of activities to increase the number of foster youth who make it to and through college, including providing trainings, assisting with the expansion of campus support programs at institutions across Michigan and the development of Seita Scholars, one of the largest and most comprehensive campus-based support programs in the nation.
Likewise, in Pennsylvania, the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research is working to increase higher education supports available to youth aging out of foster care, with the goal of increasing degree attainment at Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities, both public and private. The Campus Programming Directory for Foster Youth profiles the programs and supports available to support foster youth at every college and university in the state, with a focus on whether or not a campus is “foster-youth friendly.”
Students who have experienced foster care have a lot to consider when choosing a college. Will the financial aid office be aware of the unique funding eligibilities for such students? Will housing be available during breaks for those former foster youth who have no place else to go? Will staff and faculty be understanding of the needs of a student who has been placed in out-of-home care? Will there be a campus community that the prospective student will find welcoming?
Fostering Success Michigan’s National Postsecondary Support Map can help students make informed decisions about college, as it provides information on select programs around the country, with more being added on an ongoing basis.
Value of investing in foster youth
Higher education institutions, child welfare systems, community agencies and advocates must recognize the need to support youth who have experienced foster care in higher education.
The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative addresses this in a 2013 Issue Brief. They assert, “Communities and states now absorb tremendous costs as a result of the bad outcomes associated with young people transitioning from foster care. We are spending so much that whether or not to invest in these young people should be a no-brainer. Indeed, the most costly alternative available is to do nothing or to do too little, too late.”
There is ample information about the disproportionately poor higher education outcomes for foster youth as well as successful models of intervention that hold great potential to positively impact both the students and society at large. Investing in young people transitioning from foster care will result in a better educated workforce and a reduction in social and financial costs to society. We must ensure that the communities, systems and institutions that take responsibility to care for foster youth show them they are worth the investment.
Sarah Wasch is the program manager at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a social worker committed to improving outcomes for child-welfare involved youth.