Foster Care Youth and Postsecondary Education: The Long Road Ahead

December 11, 2017

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By Amy Dworsky

This post is part of the series Beyond the Margins: Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 young adults age out of foster care each year. A college education is as important to them as it is to their peers who were not in foster care, and they are as likely as their peers to have college aspirations.

Nevertheless, there continues to be a wide gap in postsecondary educational attainment between youth in foster care and other young adults. Compared to their non-foster care peers, youth in foster care are less likely to enroll in college if they complete high school, and less likely to graduate from college if they enroll. Several factors, including both academic and non-academic challenges, may contribute to this gap in postsecondary educational attainment.

First, youth in foster care are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to exploring their postsecondary options and navigating the college application process. The reality for many youth in foster care is that they cannot turn to their parents for information about college, assistance with college applications, help paying for college, or emotional support to cope with the academic demands and social stresses related to college life. Nor can they necessarily count on assistance with college exploration or applying to college from their caseworkers, foster parents or other caregivers. Additionally, youth in foster care are often unaware of their eligibility for financial aid from federal and state programs, their college or university, and private scholarships, or don’t have anyone to assist them with the application process.

Second, youth in foster care may be unprepared for college level work because they frequently change schools when their placements change, are tracked into basic education (rather than college preparatory) courses, or attend low performing elementary and high schools. Many who do enroll in college are required to take remedial courses before they can take courses that count towards their degree. This increases the amount of time needed to graduate and the cost of earning their degree.

Non-academic challenges can also be a barrier to educational attainment for youth in foster care in college. For example, mental and behavioral health problems are more prevalent among youth in foster care than among their non-foster peers, and these problems may interfere with their ability to succeed in college, particularly if, as frequently occurs, they discontinue treatment after they leave care. Student services personnel, including those who work with low-income and first-generation-in-college students, are often unfamiliar with the challenges faced by youth in foster care and not prepared to address their unique needs. Lack of access to affordable housing can be another barrier to pursuing postsecondary education, and is a major concern among youth in foster care especially during winter, spring and summer breaks. Furthermore, the rate of early parenthood among youth in foster care is high, and child care responsibilities prevent many youth in foster care from pursuing postsecondary education.

State and Federal Efforts to Promote Post-Secondary Educational Attainment

Policy makers at both state and federal levels have created programs aimed at increasing access to postsecondary education among youth in foster care by reducing or eliminating financial barriers. In some states, youth in foster care may be eligible for special scholarships or grants, but eligibility requirements and the amount of assistance available vary widely across states. Twenty-eight states have tuition waiver programs that allow youth in foster care to attend public colleges or universities at no charge or at a significantly reduced rate.

Programs typically cover tuition and fees not covered by other sources of financial aid but students must pay for housing, books, transportation and childcare and eligibility requirements vary widely across states. Federally funded programs are another source of support for youth in foster care. Three such programs include:

  • The Chafee Foster Care Independence Program is the primary source of federal funding to prepare youth in foster care for the transition to adulthood, and states can spend their Chafee dollars on services and supports aimed at promoting postsecondary educational attainment.
  • The Education and Training Voucher (ETV) Program provides eligible youth who are or were in foster care with up to $5000 each year to cover postsecondary educational expenses (e.g., tuition, fees, books, school supplies, computers or room and board) as well as qualified living expenses (e.g., rent, food, transportation, health insurance or childcare). Award amounts are based the availability of funds and the cost of attendance not covered by other sources of financial aid. Youth must begin receiving assistance before their 21st birthday, but remain eligible until age 23 if they are making satisfactory progress toward completing their program.
  • The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 gave states the option to extend federally funded (i.e., Title IV-E) foster care to youth who are at least 18 but not yet 21. States that exercise this option receive partial federal reimbursement for the costs of providing foster care to youth who meet the eligibility criteria.

There is some evidence that allowing youth to remain in foster care until their 21st birthday may promote postsecondary educational attainment. For the most part, however, not much is known about the impact on post-secondary educational attainment of these state and federal programs. There is no national tracking and reporting system for the ETV program, state data on the receipt of tuition waivers or ETV funds are difficult to locate or not available, and information about the outcomes of tuition waiver or ETV recipients is even more limited.

Moreover, although these programs may alleviate some of the financial barriers to postsecondary education, most were designed with the traditional pathway from high school directly into college in mind. However, youth in foster care are often older than their peers when they complete high school and may delay postsecondary education due to parenting responsibilities or because they need to work fulltime. Additionally, because taking remedial courses increases the amount of time it takes to graduate, youth in foster care may become ineligible for programs intended to promote postsecondary education.

College Success Programs

Another limitation of these state and federal programs is that, with the exception of extended foster care, they do not provide assistance with non-financial needs. This gap is increasingly being filled by college success programs that are dedicated to helping current and former foster youth who enroll in college stay in school and graduate.

Each program is unique, but most provide some combination of financial, academic, social/emotional and/or logistical (e.g., housing, transportation) supports. Some require students to apply and only some are selected; others serve all eligible students who want to participate. Most are affiliated with a single college or university, but some operate statewide. Some receive state funding, but many are supported, in whole or in part, with private-sector funds. For example, Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars Program offers a range of services and supports to help students who have experienced foster care graduate from college.

Despite a rapid expansion of college success programs over the past decade, not much is known about their impact on educational outcomes. Although many programs track retention and graduation rates, it is unclear whether the outcomes of program participants are better than the outcomes of those who do not participate or if any differences can be attributed to participation in the program.

Role of Community Colleges

Importantly, a growing number of these programs are affiliated with community colleges. This is significant because many current and former foster youth who pursue higher education begin at a community college where tuition is much lower than at four-year institutions. Still, college affordability is major consideration for foster youth who must manage the costs of housing, transportation, books, food, and basic needs in addition to tuition. Additionally, foster youth are often not prepared for college-level coursework, and community colleges allow students to take courses commensurate with their skill level.

A handful of states have also established statewide initiatives aimed at addressing the needs of community college students who are or were in foster care. Examples include California’s Foster Youth Success Initiative (FYSI), which requires every community and technical college in the state to designate a foster care liaison who is responsible for helping foster youth access student services and academic supports, and Virginia’s Great Expectations program, which provides services and supports to students at 18 community colleges throughout the state.

Looking Ahead

In September, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation to provide grants to states to improve postsecondary educational opportunities for youth in foster care and youth experiencing homelessness. Although this legislation has the potential to increase college access, retention, and completion rates among youth in foster care, it must be coupled with more research on what colleges and universities are currently doing to serve students who are or were in foster care and help them overcome the barriers they face, whether those programs are working and for whom they are effective.

Closing the gap in postsecondary educational attainment between youth who are or were in foster care and other young adults will not be easy, but it can be done if we are willing to provide the right supports and invest the necessary resources.

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