Universities must better support students from foster care

Acknowledging such students’ difficult personal circumstances is an important first step to improving their graduation rates, says Ozalle Toms

September 22, 2022
Silhouette of young woman behind window
Source: Getty (edited)

According to latest estimates, there are about 440,000 foster children in the US and another 13,000 or so foster youths aged 18 to 21. Thanks to the important efforts of foster families – and the hard work of students themselves – a growing number are now reaching higher education. However, they are still doing so in far lower numbers than the general population. And while about 10 per cent of foster care alumni enrol in post-secondary education, only 3 to 5 per cent will graduate, a 2017 study found.

As a former foster youth and foster parent myself, this topic is personal to me. I transitioned to college because two high school teachers recognised the need to support me. But I attended as a commuter and never felt like I belonged. Although I didn’t struggle academically, issues related to past trauma impacted me. The institutions I attended had a record of me being a former foster youth, but there was no support in place for students like me. Hence, it took three institutions and nine years before I earned my bachelor’s degree.

Acknowledging the difficult personal circumstances of students from foster care is an important first step to improving their graduation rates. Three-quarters of children were placed into foster care because of abuse related to neglect, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau in 2021. Another 17.5 per cent suffered physical abuse, 9 per cent sexual abuse and 7 per cent for other reasons, including substance abuse by a family member.

Unfortunately, some children experience all these kinds of abuse in their foster placements as well. Such experiences can also have far-reaching effects on both mental and physical health and well-being. Children in foster care may have anxiety, depressive symptoms or general mental difficulties. A high number have below-average standardised test scores and truancy issues. According to a 2020 study, the overall health of children who have been placed in care for more than six months is significantly worse than that of children who live in their own homes.

In addition, children who have spent significant time in foster care exhibit lower levels of self-esteem, happiness and satisfaction with life than people in the general population, according to a 2018 survey. This can lead to a range of difficulties in adult life, including around establishing healthy, stable relationships and maintaining a reliable source of income. In such a context, the level of academic support needed for these students to prosper at university should not be underestimated.

In a new study published with colleagues at Wisconsin and North Carolina, we undertook a survey of foster youths at a university in the Midwest to assess how they might be supported. Housing, academic support, counselling, mentorship and social support all ranked highly among their concerns.

For instance, 9 per cent of respondents ranked the greatest areas of need as being financial assistance for school supplies, medical or dental care, and financial aid advice. Similarly, 7 per cent expressed the greatest needs as being affordable housing, housing during semester breaks, financial support for a laptop, financial advice, counselling services, emergency financial assistance and internship and career counselling.

Not all students need the same support, so a menu of services should be provided. These services could include care packages that include basic academic necessities, which might include laptops, school supplies, book vouchers, and health and beauty supplies.

Personally, I would have greatly appreciated someone reaching out to me and providing mentorship or life coaching. Maybe I would have felt more connected to the campus if they had. Mentorship opportunities could also be offered on a bespoke basis, as could training in financial literacy and independent living. It would also be useful for universities to provide connections to childcare, housing, employment, and targeted advising for this specific student population.

Another idea is to provide – or possibly mandate – professional development for faculty and staff on the characteristics and needs of foster youth. With this kind of support in place, former foster youth will feel more confident that college attainment is possible, and that campuses have resources to support them.

It is also important to reach out to foster youth before they leave school to encourage them to apply for higher education in the first place. Because of my experiences, I wanted to make sure that when my foster children graduated high school, they went on college tours, had information about state/federal funding and were connected to individuals who could support them on campus. But not all foster parents will do this.

Whatever they do, institutions of higher education should be wary of holding a deficit mindset regarding former foster youth, however. They have often overcome great hardships and obstacles to reach campus. The schools that they attend are usually among the lowest academic performers, while many foster youths will have faced transient living and educational arrangements with multiple family and school placements.

In that context, foster youths who overcome the odds and succeed in getting to college often have a tenacity that their classmates may not possess. Helping them turn this determination into academic success is a challenge that universities should accept.

Ozalle Toms serves as the campus executive at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Wausau. Author of the memoir Letting Perseverance Finish, she is a former high school special education teacher and has been a foster mother to six children. Her co-authored paper, “A tenacious population: supporting former foster youth in higher ed” is published in the Journal for Multicultural Education.

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