Creating Access to Postsecondary Opportunities for Youth in Transition from Foster Care

Erin Russ formatted

Erin Russ, Program Associate

“Everyone expects you to fail.” These words from one foster care alum in Michigan characterize the circumstances many youth face when they “age out” of the child welfare system. Each year approximately 26,000 young people turn 18 and exit the foster care system without having been adopted. With no family or support system, this transition can be abrupt with little hope for postsecondary success. On October 29th, 2014 AYPF hosted a conversation about creating access to postsecondary opportunities for these young people. The day-long discussion focused on three areas of support: sustainable social capital, permanency supports, and postsecondary opportunities.

Investing in Sustainable Social Capital

“How are you doing?” This question that many of us ask and answer on a daily basis is especially important for youth in transition from foster care, who are more prone to emotional trauma, physical health problems, and mental stress. Yet policies and programs have not typically been concerned with measuring the well-being of young people.

Mary Bissell of Child Focus and the Youth Transition Funders Group (Foster Care Work Group) described the framework for well-being laid out in “Connected by 25: A Plan for Investing in the Social, Emotional, and Physical Well-Being of Older Youth in Foster Care”. The document calls on funders, programs, and policymakers to invest first in the emotional, mental, and social well-being of youth, as these lay the foundation for long-term success in areas like permanency, education, and employment.

On the ground, programs like Youth Villages Transitional Living are putting this framework into action. Mary Lee, the National Transitional Living Coordinator for Youth Villages, explained that older youth from foster care are matched with transitional specialists. They spend seven to nine months on average in the program building skills that will help them overcome barriers to independence., Including understanding how to access housing, working with specialists to build resumes, and applying to schools and jobs. Youth Villages tracks participant outcomes every six, 12, and 24 months, and are currently undergoing an evaluation study led by Mark Courtney of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Mike Leach, Director of Tennessee’s Independent Living Program at the Department of Children’s Services, described how they work with providers like Youth Villages across the state to help youth develop social capital. They provide funding for independent living programs that prioritize well-being and have a network of resource centers across the state for youth in transition that provide connections to education, employment, and adult mentors. Lastly, Leach noted that Tennessee follows up with young adults who have aged out of foster care and who initially opted out of extended services. This is important as many youth who transition out of foster care are eager to rid themselves of “the system”, but soon find that they would benefit from the support it provides.

The Importance of Permanency Supports

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California is one state that has addressed the need for housing among youth in transition from foster care. Amy Lemley, Policy Director for the John Burton Foundation, explained California’s Transitional Housing Plus Foster Care (THP + FC) program. THP + FC is designed to provide three housing options for youth who have extended their foster care, recognizing that young people are at different stages developmentallyWhen youth transition from the child welfare system to a more independent lifestyle, they face uncertainty about their most basic needs, like where to live. Ruthie White, Director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, presented an overview of the federal services that youth in transition from foster care may access in order to subsidize their cost of living. While there are many different types of services available, knowledge of these services and coordination across agencies remains an obstacle. White noted that coordination between systems is essential, whether that means sharing information or blending funding to provide more comprehensive services.

  • The Single-Site housing option gives youth the opportunity to live in one apartment building/complex that is owned or leased by the THP + FC provider.
  • The Scattered-Site option allows youth to live in various locations throughout the community. This is the most-used option by youth in transition from foster care in California.
  • The Host-family option places participants in the home of a caring adult with whom youth have a permanent connection.

Postsecondary Opportunities

All youth benefit from knowing about the range of postsecondary options that exist, including two-year programs, four-year institutions, and workforce training opportunities. This is the message that Foster Care to Success (FC2S), led by Executive Director Eileen McCaffrey, tries to promote to students from foster care. She mentioned access to financial aid, financial literacy, and lack of career guidance as obstacles that prevent youth from foster care from enrolling in postsecondary education. Notably, of a cohort of over 12,000 FC2S students, 61% chose to enroll in community colleges (2014).

Partnerships are an important catalyst for the success of postsecondary programs that support youth from foster care. Lori Vedder and Mary Jo Sekelsky spoke about the many partners who support MPowering My Success at the University of Michigan Flint. With a grant from the state Department of Human Services, MPowering My Success works with the Ennis Center for Children, the local YWCA, and other departments across campus to provide wrap-around supports for students. A key to the program’s success is the knowledgeable, trained staff who provide one-on-one counseling and support to students.

AYPF welcomes your thoughts and questions on this topic. You can tweet at us (@AYPF_Tweets) or email Erin Russ (

 Erin Russ is a Program Associate with the American Youth Policy Forum


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.