Despite the growing national media attention, shedding light on the precarious experiences of college students impacted by the foster care system, they remain on the margins of higher education research, policy and discourse. The data are clear though. On any given day there are nearly half of million youth in the foster care system (of which Black and Native American students are disproportionately represented) who have been subject to some form of abuse, neglect, or concerns about safety and wellbeing. Of those in care, anywhere between 20-25,000 will “age-out,” which refers to the process in which these youth are forced into adulthood (usually at age 18), often with few supports and resources. And despite maintaining high aspirations for college, the reality is that few realize this dream. Estimates from research have indicated that only about 7-13 percent of students impacted by foster care enroll in college and as little as 3 percent graduate with a bachelor’s degrees.
The challenges facing young adults impacted by foster care are numerous and well-documented. They range from difficulty meeting their basic needs and mental and behavioral challenges to academic under-preparation and informational barriers about resources and support available to them, among many other challenges. To be clear, however, hundreds of students with histories in foster care overcome seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, persisting to degree completion—and there is a great deal we can learn from “the 3%.” Instead, what I am suggesting is that colleges and universities have an institutional responsibility to meet the unique needs of this group by working to address barriers that stymie their full participation in the academic and social spheres of campus life—and institutions who do not, conspire in their educational failure.
Dr. Royel M. Johnson
I offer the following recommendations for educators and administrators working to institutionalize support for college students impacted by the foster care system:
By no means is this list meant to be exhaustive, as there are a wide-range of promising practices that institutions can (and should) adopt to better meet the needs of this important, yet often overlooked population such as developing campus-based support programs; collaborating and partnering with local child welfare agencies to triage support; and diversifying educational programing to reflect the diversity of students’ identities and experiences, to name a few more examples. Instead, I hope this is a useful starting place for college educators and administrators who are ready to accept institutional responsibility and work to address needs of young adults on their campus who have been impacted by foster care.
Dr. Royel M. Johnson is an assistant professor and research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. You can follow him on Twitter @RoyelJohnson