Every year, over 23,000 youth leave foster care without the security and guidance of forever families. Although 70% of foster youth express a desire to go to college only about two-thirds enroll and, of those who do, very few graduate. The transition to higher education is challenging for most, but especially for these young people who don’t have the mentorship, encouragement, and financial support of family. Good news: Powerful examples of colleges and universities’ programs with great results show us that we can do better by foster youth.
Jaquesha Scott graduates in June and, afterwards, will attend one of the ten law schools to which she was accepted. The first in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree, she is a Bruin Guardian Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Through this program, which supports former and current foster youth, Jaquesha receives scholarships, year-round housing in the dorms, academic and therapeutic counseling, tutoring, health care coverage, and a campus job. Scholars also receive the basics that many of their non-foster care peers receive from their families, such as bedding, towels, and other necessities for personal care. This comprehensive support helps foster youth to persist through college.
Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars is another such program, which has helped more than 250 students through its program since 2008 by offering full, paid tuition and year-round housing to students placed in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. Each student receives targeted college counseling through a campus coach who teaches important life skills, such as budgeting for weekly expenses. Volunteers help each student create a financial plan, choose an academic major, and develop a career path.
Other institutions and even seven states are stepping up to provide opportunity and support to foster youth in college. Higher education institutions like Sam Houston State University, City College of San Francisco, and community colleges in Tallahassee, FL, and Austin, TX have similar scholarships. Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington have comprehensive statewide-approaches with child welfare systems to improve these students’ graduation rates.
Ensuring that foster youth have every opportunity to full their potential takes all of our collective efforts—at every level of our education system—and, at the federal level, we are working to do our part. The U.S. Department of Education released the Foster Care Transition Toolkit for foster youth, and caring and supportive adults with helpful information and resources as they transition to young adulthood.
Good examples from the field show there’s more that can be done. For example, nonprofits and institutions of higher education could partner with employers to identify meaningful job and work-based learning opportunities for former foster youth. By age 24, only half of young people formerly in foster care are employed, although most were actively searching for work one study found. Unfortunately, young people formerly in foster care generally do not have the family, adult and community networks that provide role models support for job searches, and job leads. They are also less likely to have completed high school or postsecondary education through college or vocational training.
Colleges and universities could do what Western Michigan and UCLA are doing: keep on-campus housing open during school breaks so that students who can’t go home, including youth who do not have an adoptive family, are homeless, or are from low-income families, have a safe place to sleep. Sadly, we know that, all too many students have to resort to living in homeless shelters or sleep in their cars during breaks when dorms are closed.
States that administer Educational and Training Vouchers Program (ETV), which provides students up to $5,000 per academic year based on cost of attendance and available funds, also should ensure that disbursement of funds is synced with college and university calendars. Many students experience unnecessary confusion and stress when they are dropped from classes due to a bill that will be later covered by ETV funds.
To better serve current and former foster youth from preschool through college, we need a fuller picture of foster youth outcomes and more complete information on their experiences. We know that children in foster care comprise some of the nation’s most educationally disadvantaged students: They experience school suspensions and expulsions at higher rates than their peers not in foster care, lower standardized test scores in reading and math, high levels of grade retention and drop-out, and far lower high school and college graduation rates. We can learn more from these students’ experiences to inform coordinated, community-based strategies, inclusive of colleges and universities, for serving current and former foster youth.
I’m proud of Jaquesha and hope we all commit to making her story the rule instead of the exception. We will do so by correcting the injustice of turning our backs on former foster youth as they transition into adulthood through, together, developing a comprehensive system of support.
Ted Mitchell is U.S. Under Secretary of Education.