Researchers, Social Workers, Foster Youth in College Need to Work Together

foster care: Friends studying together at table, viewed from above.



In the past few years, the pathways and lives of adults with experience in foster care have increasingly been a prominent concern at the federal, state and local levels, particularly when it comes to the power of education to level the playing field of life. This is good news and it means that many of the tireless advocates across the nation are making a real difference. 

As a researcher-practitioner in this area for the past seven years, I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with many highly talented and committed professionals across the nation. In Oklahoma, we in higher education also enjoy a positive and long-term working relationship with professionals in our Oklahoma Successful Adulthood Program (formerly independent living), and I know multiple other states whose higher education professionals also have this type of relationship with their child welfare systems. It sounds like all good news, at least in terms of having the right pieces and the right people for moving things in a positive direction for former foster youth. 

foster care: Kerri Kearney (headshot), associate professor in higher education, student affairs at Oklahoma State University, smiling woman with long red hair, earrings, pink top, black jacket

Kerri Kearney

There is no “but” coming (I know you were probably expecting one). There is, however, an “and.” And, in this particular case, practitioners working with college students who were in foster care — who were standing right in front of them — moved faster than the research, partly just out of necessity. It is not unusual in the social sciences for research to lag behind dedicated practitioners; however, both social work and higher education have strong commitments to evidence-based practice. When deploying money toward a problem at either a practice or policy level, particularly when the problem involves human beings, most of us probably agree that it is helpful to have some guiding evidence. 

A case in point: One of the most difficult challenges at a college campus is to find the students who have backgrounds in foster care. Whether for research or for providing support, this is an elusive population. Several years ago our research team members (and many others across the nation) were thrilled to learn that a question on the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) would be modified to specifically ask applicants if they were in foster care at age 13 or older. 

Finally we would have a reasonable (although not perfect) source for finding at least a portion of students through our campus financial aid offices. This would allow us to make students aware of support services, emergency funding or research opportunities that would guide practice. It seemed like a brand new (and bright) day. 

Nope. When this change took place at the federal level, it was specific to providing more financial aid information to students who self-identified as former foster youth, and many college financial aid offices won’t release information even to researchers employed at their own institutions. Many universities won’t even track the de-identified (meaning we would have no idea who the students were) retention and graduation rates for this group of students because the changes in the FAFSA had a very narrow purpose that did not include anything beyond providing more financial aid information. 

Is financial aid important? Of course it is. It is important for the large majority of college students. However, this federal decision appears to have not been informed about the range of factors that seem to contribute to success, including the growing research that shows that support systems of various kinds are equally critical for former foster youth in college. We can throw a lot of money at the issue, but it is also going to take relational support work to increase the dismal success rate for former foster youth in college. 

Case workers need our research too

It is research with these students, led by these students and informed by these students that is making this clear. We also need a way to know whether the success of this group of students is being impacted by our efforts through de-identified tracking of retention and completion rates.

Let’s stick with the topic of funding streams for just a minute. While I am thrilled that any funding, for example Chafee, is available for former foster youth at a federal state, or college level, age limitations (although this is experiencing some changes) have been problematic. Older students at today’s colleges continue to be on the rise. Research has suggested that the rate of former foster youth who attain a bachelor’s degree increases considerably when we include those who return to college as older adults. 

And yet, anecdotally, good case workers have been in a position of pushing students forward and into college, sometimes before the students are ready, because the case workers don’t want the time to run out on funds. Students of any background who are not ready for college don’t do well there.

That brings us to right now. Researchers are producing a number of helpful findings from empirical studies on adults who were in foster care and, just yesterday, I sat with our child welfare partners and talked about the data they are collecting that can also be useful in empirical study of the issues. Much of the research on former foster youth has tended to be the purview of social work researchers. However, when it comes to studying the success of these individuals on a college campus, interdisciplinary research, particularly that which involves social work and higher education researchers, is critical. 

Historically these two fields did not have a need to work together, so we (both social work and higher education researchers) are working hard to break down those barriers and make connections. For example (and thanks to a grant from the Spencer Foundation), in February 2020, the nation’s first research conference on foster alumni in college, and similarly hidden college populations, will be held in our nation’s capital. Our entire goal is to create and support interdisciplinary research teams, teams that will also include practitioners. If you are a researcher or a practitioner who likes to be involved in research, please fill out a proposal to join us there. 

But even if you are not, I hope all of us with a common goal of postsecondary opportunities and success for adults who were in foster care and current foster youth will come together in insisting that our legislators, our educators, our researchers, our social work systems and our communities push toward bringing research and practice together toward a more informed effort. 

Kerri Kearney, MBA, Ed.D., is an associate professor in higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University. She is a researcher, a teacher, and the founder of the R is for Thursday Network, a research-to-practice initiative that provides statewide training for educators serving college and college-bound students with backgrounds in foster care.   


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