From Foster Care to College: An Uphill Battle

Madeline Donley, AYPF Policy Research Intern

As the boiling “dog days” of summer roll around, a new wave of high school seniors prepare to crash into the college admissions process. I remember this time as a series of dull snapshots: hours of campus tours, SAT prep classes, and essay editing. The process required a lot of time, money, and guidance, three things that I was fortunate enough to have. Because of this, I was more worried about which college I would be attending rather than if I would be going at all. The day eventually came when my teary-eyed family dropped me off at my dorm, and off I went. This path is a reality for a majority of today’s high-schoolers: in Fall 2017, 66.7% of high school graduates ages16 through 24 were enrolled at a college or university. Obtaining a postsecondary degree significantly decreases chances of unemployment and increases average earnings, so it seems obvious that most young people would continue their educational journey.

This opportunity, however, is far from accessible for students who have been involved with the foster care system. These students face unique challenges that can make postsecondary education unobtainable without the right support. As a result, less than half of this cohort will graduate with a high school diploma, and less than three percent will go on to complete a bachelor’s degree. This rate is shocking, concerning, and unacceptable; and it may be due in part to the rigorous requirements of obtaining a postsecondary degree. Applying to college is complicated enough, even with help. I had guidance every step of the way: my mom asked tour guides about campus life, my SAT tutor helped boost my score, and my counselor showed me how to make my application stand out. Without this kind of support, applying to college can seem like an unsolvable puzzle, and it’s just the first step. Attending a postsecondary institution introduces a new set of challenges that youth in foster care might need to consider: will housing be available over breaks, is Medicaid accepted as health care coverage, and is there a food or clothing bank on campus? Without clear answers to questions like these, foster care youth have the cards stacked against them.

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Are schools providing targeted services to foster care youth? I set out to answer this question during my summer at AYPF. I conducted a scan of the accessibility of postsecondary institutions to foster care youth in the DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) region, and the results suggest that this is uncommon. The scan attempted to gauge the amount of support available to foster care youth by searching the websites of two and four-year institutions in the DMV for the following factors: a foster care youth-specific page and contact, emergency assistance (e.g. an on campus food pantry), specialized academic advising and/or career services, and on-campus childcare services. Overall, this information was not readily available. Many websites were outdated, and the terminology used across schools was inconsistent. Food assistance, for example, was found under tags like ‘emergency assistance,’ ‘community resources,’ ‘food pantry,’ or something entirely different. This made existing services easy to miss. Moreover, what did exist rarely targeted foster care youth. In fact, the only program to specifically mention the population was Great Expectations, a foster care youth support program exclusive to Virginia Community Colleges. While other programs with potential benefits to foster care youth were sometimes present, they did not call out the population. This scan was not exhaustive: it is possible that more foster care youth-specific programs exist in the region. However, if this is the case, these programs are not easy to find online and could easily go unnoticed by those who would benefit from their services.

This is not to say that more comprehensive services do not exist: California and Michigan both have robust, statewide resources for foster care youth; and Great Expectations is certainly a bright spot in Virginia. Rather, these results indicate such targeted postsecondary supports may be the exception. Since education beyond high school is becoming increasingly essential to career access, a less than 3% degree-attainment rate for youth in foster care is a significant hindrance to their long-term success.

To further illuminate what the postsecondary experience is like for these students, I spoke with someone who is in the thick of it. Shyara, 24 years old, is a former foster care youth and current student at the Community College of Philadelphia. With one year left of classes and a secure job, Shyara has set herself up for a bright future, but her journey has not been without challenges. When she decided to pursue a degree in twelfth grade, immediately there were barriers: “I went to a school that was in a different county from Philadelphia where I was living. When I transferred back to Philadelphia they told me that the credits wouldn’t transfer, so I would have to go back to ninth grade.” Rather than retaking four years of high school, Shyara opted for a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program and promptly began her college search. “I didn’t even know how to apply for college,” Shyara said, “no one helped me.” Despite a confusing admissions process and a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) mishap that forced her to drop her first semester classes, she enrolled.

The Philadelphia Youth Network youth success program provided Shyara with some of the guidance that had been absent in her experience thus far. It was not, however, provided through her school, making it inaccessible to some of Shyara’s peers: “[The program is] at the school because they help people, but some people don’t even know about it. It wasn’t a program that was big, like the school made it up, it was just a program that decided to come down there and walk you through the process on their own. If there was something at the school, at an office you could go to and sign up and get that help, it would be a lot easier.” According to Shyara, the solution is simple: “Schools definitely need a designated office [for these services] that’s actually advertised.” This recommendation mirrors those of other youth in foster care who have taken on the postsecondary journey: when the Youth Fostering Change project asked a group of these students what changes they would like to see, a foster youth liaison was at the top of the list.

There has been some effort to address these concerns in the policy sphere. The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2017 aims to reduce the barriers facing youth in foster care as they pursue their education. The proposed legislation would ease some of the burden placed on youth by reducing the required amounts of documentation and paperwork connected to application and enrollment, provide in-state tuition, assist with housing, and establish a contact through which youth can engage with the school community and receive support. However, the bill has not moved forward since its introduction in 2017, and similar action has been scarce since.

Despite this bleak landscape, however, students like Shyara offer encouragement. They demonstrate how successful programs can help foster care youth thrive in their postsecondary endeavors; perhaps if similar programs were provided by schools, more of these students could experience the success that Shyara has.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.