Here’s how we can make going to college smoother for students who’ve been in foster care

Can campus-based support programs boost to graduation rates for former foster youth?

Young people who’ve been in foster care face some challenging circumstances, but they still hope to go to college just like their peers.

For example, 84 percent of the 17- and 18-year-olds in foster care in one survey indicated that they wanted to attend college. That’s just 6 percentage points lower than the 90 percent of young people in the general population who say they want to get some sort of college degree or program certificate after high school.

Despite having similar college aspirations, however, something is preventing students who’ve been in foster care from graduating from college at the same rate as their peers.

About one-third of the adult population in the United States has a four-year degree, but only between 3 percent and 9 percent of children who have been in foster care complete a four-year degree.

Campus-based support

There are college-based programs that can help turn things around. I say this not only as a researcher but from personal experience. You see, one of the programs — the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University — is named after me.

I grew up in foster care myself. My aspirations when I was young were no different than those of my high school classmates who lived with their families. We all wanted love, safety and happiness. We all had goals and dreams for a meaningful and successful life.

Despite having similar hopes and dreams, young people attending college who have been in foster care often lack family support, or what I call “family privilege.” Family privilege is defined as the benefits, mostly invisible, that come from having a stable family to teach you how things – including college – work.

Many foster care alumni have previously led transient lives. Many have moved from one foster home to another. Ten percent of young people move six or more times. Many have attended multiple schools, which can result in academic challenges, such as falling behind peers, lower scores on standardized tests and difficulty in social adjustment. There are currently about 437,000 young people in foster care.

Multiple placements can make it difficult to understand the kind of societal norms and rules that aid most young people as they transition to college.

Awareness of the challenges facing alumni of foster care who attend college has been increasing. According to my colleague Maddy Day, director of outreach and training at the Center for Fostering Success at Western Michigan University, there are 85 four-year campus support programs nationally for foster care alumni.

Care packages and emergency funds

Of all the college support programs for foster care alumni that exist across the country, I happen to be affiliated with two.

Michigan State University, where I serve as an associate professor, operates the FAME program for alumni of foster care. FAME is an acronym for “fostering academics, mentoring excellence.” The FAME program serves approximately 52 students each year.

FAME accepts students who qualify academically to attend Michigan State. FAME provides personal mentoring, individual coaching and an interactive website for various services. It also offers emergency financial assistance and care packages during final exams.

The other program with which I am affiliated is the one that is named after me: the Seita Scholars Program at my alma mater, Western Michigan University.

Through the program, Western Michigan provides fully funded scholarships to undergraduate students who have been in foster care. The program also makes available campus coaches who provide 24-hour on-call support. It also offers connections to various services and systems that range from Medicaid to year-round housing.

The critical question when it comes to these programs is: Do they work?

Emergent evidence

A review of a sample of annual reports, such as this one, shows that the graduation rate for Seita scholars is “far above the national average for youth who experienced foster care.” For instance, 44 percent of Seita Scholars who started during the 2009-10 school year have graduated – substantially less than the average gradation rate of 79 percent of all students at WMU, but still substantially higher than the 3 to 9 percent graduation rate for former foster youth nationwide.

However, research in this area is very new, and the quest for evidence of what actually works is still ongoing. For instance, one recent study that looked at a program in the Midwest confirmed the importance of financial aid, housing and adult guidance for former foster youth to successfully complete college. However, the study found that while the program’s 30 percent graduation rate for students “far exceeds the national average for degree completion of students with a background in foster care, it is below the rate for a comparable first-generation student population at the university.”

“We conclude that while key components of a college support program like financial aid, housing and trained adult staff guidance are necessary in supporting students with a background in foster care attain postsecondary success, they are not sufficient to adequately explain graduation rates,” the study concluded.

What that finding means to me is not that these programs are not worth doing. Rather, it just means we have more work to do before we know precisely what parts of these programs are most beneficial and have the biggest effect.