Transitions to Adulthood: Succeeding in College

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

The excitement of those first weeks of college—new people, more freedom, a new community—are often overshadowed by homesickness and trouble balancing a new social life with new academic and financial demands.

All students feel the pressure, but it’s even harder for those leaving foster care. Many leave college before completion for financial and emotional reasons.

Financial barriers often increase as foster students age and fewer scholarship opportunities are available. And since many foster youth do not begin to stabilize their lives (and start their post-secondary education) until an average age of 26, it is no wonder that only 3 to 10 percent of foster youth earn undergraduate degrees compared with 34 percent of 25-to-29-year-old non-foster care young adults.

Besides financial challenges, foster youth who “age out”— too old to receive housing or other supports from the child welfare system—often have trouble finding affordable places to live near campus, transportation to get to classes, or a case manager to help them navigate the financial aid process.

The deadline for aging out varies by state, but typically it’s when the foster child turns 21. But in states that have fully adopted and are implementing the federal Fostering Connections Act, aging out can come as late as age 26, an important support for college completion.

Thirty-nine states offer assistance to aged-out foster youth. State-offered services range from tuition waivers at community colleges to outreach programs at universities that work directly with local child welfare systems to support successful transitions to college. 

California cares for more than 50,000 foster youth each year, more than any other state, offering specialized support programs for students from foster care. For example, Sonoma State University’s Educational Opportunities Program  gives foster youth assistance with admissions, financial aid, campus orientation, and academic and personal advice. Its Summer Bridge program is mandatory for all incoming former foster youth. Such programs can mean the difference between college readiness and dropping out freshman year.

Michigan’s Fostering Futures scholarship program is more typical of the college-related support offered nationally to foster youth. Michigan awards modest scholarships—less than $5,000 per year—paid by federal sources, such as the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, or from the state, or private foundations. To qualify, students need to initiate requests for Chafee funds before age 22.

Such modest resources are an essential minimum for a foster youth’s successful journey from college enrollment to graduation. But many new collegians may also need ongoing guidance and support from a foster parent or other adult to address emotional and other support needs. Research is limited on college success among foster youth—and based largely on cross-sectional studies and surveys of foster care alumni (i.e., foster youth who are now adults).

The available research suggests that a stable, caring, and trusted educational advocate can contribute importantly to a foster youth’s college success, just as they do when these youth are in elementary, middle, and high school. Youngsters who live in supportive homes just prior to attending college and whose foster parents have college experience benefit from steady guidance as parents share beliefs, attitudes, practical skills, and values that promote educational and life success.

In sharp contrast, a childhood of moving from home to home and school to school leaves scars and can impede success.

Whether foster children are learning to crawl, walking into their first classroom, or running from part-time jobs to high school exams, a safe and stable home—along with access to resources that promote educational engagement—is necessary for success from kindergarten through college.

Yes, new state and federal programs and laws afford foster youth with greater opportunities to succeed in college. But, problems still dog state child welfare systems. Chief among them is lack of financial backing to ensure that every foster child who qualifies for college has a fair chance of earning a degree.

And the degree is not the end. It’s the beginning of a career, financial independence and building a lifetime of stability.

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