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Children & Families Forum: Foster Youth Deserve a Fair Shot at Higher Education
By Judith Halbreich, MSW, LCSW-R
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 4 P. 6

Foster kids grow up in servitude and suffer from instability, inconsistency, incoherence, and a multitude of other incomparable deficiencies. They move from one foster family to another an average of three times per year, each time transferring to a new school and detaching from friends and peers. This emotionally deprived life as a figurative leaf in the wind is amplified at age 18 (21 in some states) when financial public support ends abruptly.

There are about 500,000 youth in the U.S. foster care system. Annually, at least 20,000 of them age out of the system. Young adults being discharged from foster care without community support, housing, or a strategy for the future are in extremely vulnerable positions. For example, nearly 30% of former foster kids become homeless and as many as 55% are unemployed. Furthermore, those who are employed have earnings below the poverty line and cannot maintain a stable job—only 38% are still working one year after aging out.

Also, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study, 50% do not complete high school, 1 out of 4 are incarcerated within the first two years of aging out of the foster care system, and 60% of girls become unwed mothers within two years.

In addition to the hardships experienced by many of these young people, these outcomes are financially costly to society, resulting in increased costs for incarceration and social programs such as welfare and Medicaid.

Unfortunately for foster youth, the financial resources, mentorship, support, stability, and guidance needed to complete higher education or vocational training programs are not common. As a result, only 3% of former foster youth obtain a college degree.

While most foster youth have college aspirations, they face many challenges that make it difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain a college education. Even the barriers to transitioning to college can prove to be insurmountable, and statistics show the chances of them completing their degree and obtaining employment can often be bleak.

The Pandemic’s Effect
Becoming self-reliant is an immense undertaking for any young person during normal times, let alone during a national health and economic crisis.

The pandemic has disrupted educational pathways for all students, but foster care students have experienced the largest setback. Many of them lack access to a parent, mentor, or pastor—someone they can rely on. Consequently, a significant number of students may delay college or just quit. Students have cited difficulty learning online, a lack of internet access and personal computers, and unsafe environments as roadblocks to learning. In addition, many can’t return to their group home or to foster parents who are also struggling during the pandemic.

As the pandemic forces many employees to continue to work remotely, it robs many foster youth of the same preparatory services typically provided by their agencies in the six months before aging out. Once discharged, college students face difficulties securing basic needs such as adequate food, clothing, transportation, and a stable residence outside of the college dorm. Foster youth in college have fewer support networks and safety nets to depend on in a crisis let alone daily—more importantly, a lack of supportive relationships. In fact, foster youth may need to work full-time to make ends meet.

Keys to Success
The difficulties and obstacles of growing up as a foster kid are well documented. Social work experts recognize that once youth transition out of the public support system, they need support to help them become independent. However, most programs designed by academics and dedicated providers and caseworkers do not incorporate the direct input of the target “clients.”

 A successful program must be based on input from all stakeholders. Of course, the main stakeholders are the foster youth themselves—especially those who do not just wish to survive but desire to strive—who transition out of foster care to meet the challenge of standing on their own feet.

The Students’ Point of View
To gain insight on the process of higher education for foster youth, Home of Champions initiated pilot focus groups of students enrolled in a public college. The goal was to gain the perspectives of foster youth students (or youth with comparable experiences) on their difficulties and deficiencies in college. By doing so, the researchers hope to gain insights on the students’ future needs and develop solutions to rectify them.

Thirty students answered questions about value systems, learning support programs, and transitional programs. A diverse group of college students shared their foster care experiences, including their anxiety about graduating, and expressed their opinions on resiliency and their passion to succeed despite many obstacles.

 The survey found that the most pressing issues were the following:
• poor finances;
• a lack of self-confidence;
• a feeling of being rejected by society and that “no one cares”;
• a dearth of counseling services;
• the absence of a “safety net”; and
• poor home life.

“Students often succeed in college through family support,” says Laksmi Lagares, founding curator of the Global Shapers Community. “This is true of first-generation college students as well. Supportive parents and family structures, even if uneducated, are the difference between a college student succeeding and a college student dropping out. I know this is true for me. When I entered college immediately after high school, I was on my own. I had no support. When I had a question, or needed to navigate my academics and/or social life, there was no one I could call. After three years, I dropped out of school, eventually finishing my BS and MBA as a working adult. So, when we really boil this down, it's the supportive human connection that makes all the difference. Former foster youth are the only ones who really understand how difficult life is without a support system. They have the experiential knowledge or ‘lived experience.’”

The survey also sought the opinions of Home of Champions’ volunteers and advisors, who shared how their positive foster care experiences impacted their well-being and led to successful careers. For example, several professionals indicated that there was a consistent and caring person in their lives offering encouragement. Others mentioned having one or two positive foster home acquaintances whom they now consider family.

Many developed a certain resourcefulness that allowed them to navigate the bureaucracy, and a resiliency and tenacity to not only survive but also achieve.

In general, the data on how foster students fare in higher education have been inconsistent and, in some cases, unavailable. The pandemic has only made their situations worse. Some students have found it challenging to transition to online classes. Others don’t have access to technology, and many have been unable to connect with a foster family or their biological parent because the courts are delayed and social workers are difficult to reach.

Foster youth should have a longer path to adulthood in a safe environment. They should be able to stay in care, with an individual sustainable living plan until the age of 26. Policies and practices must allow other youth to reenter foster care during a pandemic or similar crisis.

A 2018 report from the University of Chicago–based research group Chapin Hall found that each year in extended foster care increased the chances of foster youth enrolling in college by approximately 11%. The report also found that such a policy boosted foster youths’ bank accounts by $404 and decreased their odds of being homeless or couch surfing in transition years by 28%.

Looking Ahead
How do we improve the outcomes for foster youth who get to college or a training program on their own merit? 

We need to reach out broadly to embrace those foster care students who are aging out of foster care service but who still need a government mechanism to enlist the help of lifetime mentors, universities, social service and mental health organizations, businesses, and communities. These partnerships can ensure that young people in foster care will have access to the opportunities, resources, and mentoring necessary to successfully cultivate their well-being and careers.

There must be mandated contact between foster care agencies and each student through their college graduation and the following four years. To increase graduation rates, colleges should be required to provide year-round housing and ongoing life coaches and counselors. Higher education must focus on ways to ensure that former foster students have long-term housing, especially around the holidays and during the summer.

Federal, state, and local governments and community organizations should commit themselves to the task of building a better national system of care for foster and disconnected youth. For the future of our youth, it must be a priority.

— Judith Halbreich, MSW, LCSW-R, is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with a successful executive career in social services, clinical research, and mental health whose lifetime of advocacy work is focused on the importance of all children having a home base and continuous mentorship. She is the founder of Home of Champions, a unique program in Upstate New York that identifies leaders emerging from the foster care system and supports them to become champions of their best selves. She is the author of the newly published book The Audacity to Be Divine.