Growing Up in Foster Care: High School and College Prep

This is the third post in a series examining educational challenges facing youth in foster care, from early childhood into college—and some possible pathways to college and career success.

High school students in foster care dream of going on to college, just like other teenagers who have never experienced the pain and disruption of growing up without their families’ support.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 400,000 youth are in foster care in any given year. Of these, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports, 84 percent (more than 300,000) say they want to attend college. Despite their dreams, only 20 percent of foster youth who graduate from high school enroll in college. A research review done by Chapin Hall at The University of Chicago reports that even the most optimistic studies show just 6 percent  will earn their bachelor’s degrees.

By comparison, 68 percent of American high school graduates enrolled in college in 2014. And 34 percent of 25-to-29-year-olds completed their bachelor’s degrees.

What explains this disconnect? And what can be done to close the gap between our foster youths’ educational aspirations and college attainment?

Relocation and the trauma of shuffling from home to home are major reasons why many foster teens so often slip academically. A strong connection to school requires a sense of stability and belonging that few of them have.

A Casey Family Programs study of young adults in foster care found that more than half had changed schools seven or more times from elementary through high school. But teachers may not even know that a student is in foster care or how to support a foster youth’s unique needs.

Improving the capacity of schools, courts, and child-welfare agencies to help foster youth succeed in school has received much attention. But research suggests that to keep teens moving toward higher education, they need adult role models who can, among other things, advise them about college.

Shouldn’t foster parents be filling that role?

The system isn’t set up that way. And many foster parents don’t have experience with higher education and aren’t equipped to provide the academic, emotional, or financial supports their foster youth need to be ready for a future that includes college. To be sure, many foster families are trying to make up for their foster children’s lost years of educational progress and the individual learning challenges that often come with the system’s disruptions that have delayed academic and emotional readiness for college.

Most  foster parents don’t have adequate guidance about how to help children catch up. And for children without school-funded Individual Education Programs,  the kind of tutoring and support services often needed are just too expensive. Few foster parents have the background to know how to provide this kind of support themselves, even with all of the good intentions and care in the world.

State and local foster care requirements rest heavily on foster parents’ ability to give children a safe, stable, and loving home. Typical requirements:  criminal-background screening, sufficient income, basic transportation, the patience and ability to care for a child in need, and a pledge never resort to corporal punishment.

Then there’s a long list of housing requirements—from meeting basic fire and safety codes to making sure each child has a separate bed and that there are separate bedrooms for boys and girls. More practical requirements include having first aid kits and written emergency plans and locking up firearms and medicines.   

But there is no requirement that foster youth have a place to do homework. No requirement that families provide a supportive learning environment.

Most foster parents attend some mandatory training before receiving children into their homes, but the amount of training varies from state and state. And few foster parents are trained to create a college-going culture at home or to understand high-school graduation requirements or to fill out FAFSA forms for college scholarships.

A foster parent education program in New York City and Los Angeles that AIR is evaluating does train foster parents to prepare their foster children for college. In PrepNOW!, retired professionals from all walks of life work directly with parents so they can better support their children as they apply for and enroll in college. Fedcap, a nonprofit founded in 1935, began piloting PrepNOW! in 2016.

During one-on-one and group meetings over six weeks, mentors build parents’ core competencies:

  • Learning about the child-welfare system and the challenges of youth transition
  • Valuing education and developing the ability to communicate this value to young people
  • Finding ways to motivate youth to attend college
  • Understanding the college-readiness process
  • Navigating the college-application and financial-aid processes
  • Understanding critical supports that college freshman need

AIR is evaluating the program’s effects on college and career readiness. Evaluation results are expected in 2018. 

My next post will explore successful strategies for supporting foster youth in college so that they can achieve academic success, complete their degrees, and begin their careers or pursue graduate-level education on a solid footing, moving from a childhood of trauma and change to a future of success and stability.

Patricia Campie is a principal researcher at AIR, where she leads research and evaluation studies on topics, from child welfare and justice system reform to gun violence prevention and improving implementation of evidence-based practices.