Of all demographic groups attending college, perhaps none are as vulnerable as students who have experienced foster care. According to recent studies, only 3 percent of youth who have lived in foster care ever complete a degree.
It is important to note that comprehensive data on college outcomes among students who have experienced foster care is notoriously hard to come by. The Government Accountability Office published a 2016 report stating, “Little information is available on the percentage of foster youth who enroll in college,” explaining that the Department of Education was working to improve its understanding of the challenges that students who have experienced foster care face and to provide more authoritative data on their college trajectories.
What little is known, however, mainly serves to underscore the difficulties that students who have experienced foster care have to overcome. In most states, individuals age out of the foster care system at age 18, although some states have extended their support to age 21. That means that, at about the same time that most students are going to college, all the supports that have guided them up to that point in their lives are taken away.
“Getting to college is difficult for any kid, but for a kid who is aging out of foster care, that is going to also involve meaning that you’re losing your place to live, you’re losing your place to go for the holidays and you’re losing a lot of the mentors that you have in your life,” said Celeste Bodner, founder and executive director of FosterClub. “For a lot of foster kids, their mentors are people who are in the system, like foster parents and case workers.”
FosterClub is a national support network for current and former foster youth with a membership of approximately 32,000. Most members are between the ages of 14 to 24, meaning that education is a high-priority topic for many, according to Bodner.
“In our years of working with young people, we have realized that there’s a great disparity when it comes to young people from foster care who plan or dream of going to college, and those who actually do,” Bodner said.
While FosterClub has not polled its membership on their college-going aspirations, Bodner pointed to a survey that found that 70 percent of 17-year-old youth in foster care wanted to go to college.
“Seventeen is about the age when you should be planning to go to college, so to have that many young people under the impression that they will go to college, and so few of them actually being successful at it, clearly there’s a need for support,” Bodner said.
FosterClub already is working to provide resources to its members regarding programs that will help them achieve their college-going goals, and just last week announced a pilot program with InsideTrack, a college coaching service based in Portland, Oregon.
InsideTrack will offer pro-bono coaching services for 12 college-bound foster youth who are members of FosterClub’s leadership track.
“We’ve made a lot of headway in securing resources for young people from foster care to attend college,” Bodner said. “The big missing piece is then for young people to have someone on their side and help shepherd them through that process. So when InsideTrack contacted us initially and said that they were interested in working with young people in foster care, we saw it was a great combination.”
Although the partnership is starting out small, Bodner said that it has broad implications for increasing understanding of what works to help foster youth achieve their college goals.
“Frankly, what often happens for foster youth, is those that live in more populated, urban centers have more access to resources,” Bodner said. “I think one of the pieces of this project that is super exciting is that, because it is virtual, it will allow coaches to meet young people who may not have had any access to supports.”
The virtual coaching element of InsideTrack’s services could be a game-changer, in other words, particularly for foster youth residing outside of urban centers. FosterClub did not provide any demographic details about the students, including where they are currently attending high school.
“We decided to start the partnership small and focus on 12 students distributed across seven different states so we could get a sense for the diversity of issues that students face across the country,” said Dave Jarrat, vice president of marketing at InsideTrack.
“In our coaching for institutions around the country, we have coached many current and former foster youth,” Jarrat said. “We saw a deep need for this type of coaching, particularly because many of these students don’t have the family or other supports to help guide them through the college process.”
Many colleges and universities across the country are working to tackle the challenges that their students who have experienced foster care face. California, for example, offers scholarships to former foster youth, and Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars Program is regarded as one of the leaders in the field. Yet not all institutions offer the same range of resources, making the college application process even more complicated to navigate for prospective students who have experienced foster care.
Added to that, foster care and homeless students are more likely to pursue an associate degree, shifting them away from four-year schools to community colleges and vocational programs.
InsideTrack proposes to help the 12 students navigate the system during their first year of postsecondary education, according to Jarrat. Coaches will help students develop a clear understanding of what they want to get out of the college process and where they want to be five or 10 years after graduation.
“Generally, we find that coaching students through the first one or two terms is sufficient for them to develop the skills to then manage the process on their own,” Jarrat explained. The students are currently in their senior year of high school, and InsideTrack’s coaches will stay with them throughout their first year of school to help connect them with services on campus, social work organizations and help keep them motivated.
“To my knowledge, this is a first-of-its-kind partnership, and so we’re very excited to know how virtual coaching works for this group of young people,” Bodner said. “We’re going to be watching not only how it aids them in improving educational outcomes, but how well it improves their transition from foster care outcomes.”
Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.