Fostering College Success: Campus Support Programs Work — When Done Right

Support programs for students with experience in foster care help these students navigate higher education's complex systems, but progress replicating successful programs has been slow.
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  • This is the second installment in "Fostering College Success," a BestColleges News special report exploring the unique challenges students with experience in foster care face while pursuing higher education.
  • Many schools and states have tried to address low completion rates among students with experience in foster care.
  • These programs have proven successful at the institutional level.
  • They are also costly, however, which holds many schools back from investing more in this student population.

When educators and student advocates are asked what a campus-based support program for college students formerly in foster care should look like, they point to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Western Michigan University's Seita Scholars Program was lauded by experts BestColleges spoke with for its record of meeting the needs of college students with experience in foster care (SEFC).

More and more campus-based SEFC support programs are popping up across this country as this self-described "invisible" student population demands increased support to navigate the obstacles presented by higher education's complex systems.

These programs are, at their core, a point of contact for college students formerly in foster care.

They can replicate the successes realized by Western Michigan's nearly 15-year-old program, Ronicka Hamilton, Seita Scholars director, told BestColleges. Other successes will have to be earned through hard work, individualized attention — and even tears.

When the program launched in 2008, Seita Scholars coaches — the program's term for those who work directly with Western Michigan's SEFC population — would meet weekly, she explained. They would spend hours discussing the issues their students brought up and how they can best address them.

"When I tell you I would sit in team meetings and ball my eyes out," Hamilton said. "We felt like we couldn't manage everybody's needs."

What followed was years of intense research — and even more trial and error — to create one of the country's most successful campus-based support systems. Today, its students' graduation rates now far exceed national averages. More than 30% of Seita Scholars who are first-time-in-any college and nearly 50% of all Seita Scholars achieve an undergraduate degree. Many go on to pursue graduate school.

It’s a significant step up from the national average of 3% for SEFC.

What Do SEFC Support Programs Do?

As campus-based support programs launch across the country, many are going through growing pains similar to those experienced in Kalamazoo.

While Seita Scholars and nonprofits like Florida-based Cetera - home of the Fostering Success Coaching Institute - offer advice to these fledgling programs, the concept is relatively new and still evolving.

These programs are generally led by a faculty member with social work experience. Some programs may have multiple coaches able to meet the needs of these students, but most have only one lead who usually has other research responsibilities.

In San Marcos, Texas, Christine Norton helped launch the Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success (FACES) program at Texas State University in 2011 and is also the school's foster care liaison.

She told BestColleges she has to balance those responsibilities with being a professor and researcher.

Norton serves as a point person for students with experience in foster care. That means when they have questions about navigating the higher education system or need help accessing financial aid specific to foster care alumni, they turn to her.

The individualized approach is key, she said.

"Kids can feel like a number. Young adults coming out of foster care have already felt like a number," Norton said. "I don't want our students feeling this way."

Experts say that at many schools, financial aid officers aren't aware of grants and scholarships available to these students. Other administrators aren't trained to work with these students in a way that accommodates the trauma they often carry from their experience in or before foster care.

That means it also falls on program heads to educate other school administrators.

Norton said she created an advisory committee that includes officers from key departments, including:

  • The registrar
  • Financial aid
  • Housing life
  • The college counseling center
  • Student health services
  • The dean of students' office

By gathering these administrators, she helps ensure that students from foster care have at least one person in each office they know can help them with their specific needs.

It helps make the bureaucracy of higher education seem more manageable, she said.

Cheri McConnell, program coach for the Fostering Lions Program at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), has a similar committee that includes 23 offices. Not only is it convenient for the students, but it allows her to raise concerns about the negative effects of longstanding processes on the school's SEFC population and how they might be changed.

Being a coach is more than just dealing with bureaucracy, she added. At times, it can also mean serving as a pseudo-parent for these students.

McConnell said a part of her role she values is being someone students can come to — not only when they have problems but also when they have successes. A student from an intact family likely has a family member they can call to celebrate when they pass a major exam.

McConnell said she hopes to be that person for students from foster care.

"I pat myself on the back sometimes because of some of the meetings they ask me to go to … just because they want someone in their corner," she said.

Empowering Students to Find Their Own Solutions

There's little uniformity among these programs. Without government guardrails in most states, that means many liaisons are working off the cuff, at least at the start.

Neither Norton nor McConnell have experience in foster care themselves. And while Norton's field of study helps, she said there are many aspects of running FACES she was not prepared for.

"I'm trained as a social worker, but I have been surprised with the level and magnitude of trauma these students bring," she said.

The knee-jerk reaction among many is to try to fix problems directly for these students.

Jamie Bennett, founder of the nonprofit Cetera and a former Seita Scholars coach at Western Michigan, aims to wean coaches away from this instinctual response to instead encourage students to find their own solutions to problems. It's the method Bennett helped develop through the growing pains at Western Michigan, and the method Hamilton says the university still uses today.

"What we believe is that young people hold the solutions for the problems they are navigating," Bennett said.

For example, say a student walks into a coach's or liaison's office and says they don't have rent money and are going to be evicted from their apartment, Bennett said. A coach's instinct may be to start calling potential donors to raise money to pay the student's rent.

Bennett, however, said she would encourage that student's coach to ask them a visioning question: "If we were successful, what would that look like?"

The answer may vary by student. Some might say they just need a place to sleep in the immediate future, while others are looking for a long-term solution for the rest of the semester.

One student may be satisfied with staying with a friend temporarily or at a homeless shelter, while another is looking for a path to a more affordable apartment complex.

Next is the designing process, where a coach would encourage the student to come up with their own solution to the problem, Bennett said. The coach would guide the student here. But ultimately, it's the student who comes up with the answer.

It comes back to Bennett's motto: "Do with, not for."

Bennett believes this is a necessary step in identity-building for SEFC. Throughout foster care, these youths are constantly being told what to do and where they are going to live.

Bennett's model empowers them to make the choice instead.

Hamilton added that it also helps the coaches. Liaisons can quickly become overwhelmed trying to manage crises for their students, always trying to be the hero.

"The problem with that is that you can't be the hero to 90 students," she said. "It's a recipe for burnout."

SEFC Programs Prove Effective

The programs may vary, but research shows that established campus-based support programs successfully graduate SEFC at a much higher rate than the national 3% average.

One study examined the Transition to Independence Program (TIP) at Wayne State University. It compared the graduation rates of students in that program to other SEFC not part of the program, as well as their low-income peers in federal TRIO programs.

In short, TIP offered:

  • Two full-time coaches
  • $3,000 in scholarships each year, per student
  • $300 in emergency grants each year, per student
  • Engagement activities to build community
  • Year-round housing

The study found that students formerly in foster care who were involved in TIP were less likely to drop out than those who weren’t in TIP, but they were still more likely to drop out than their TRIO classmates.

A 2018 study of a similar program at San Francisco State University found that SEFC had a six-year graduation rate of 70%. That was better than the general population of the school.

Hamilton said Seita Scholars students graduate approximately 46% of the time. She said the goal is to match the 56% graduation rate for all first-time students at the university.

Catherine Ramirez is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin with a research interest in campus-based support programs. She told BestColleges that despite the reported success of these programs, many schools still haven't implemented their own.

That's not out of malice, but largely because many administrators don't even know students formerly in foster care have problems that need addressing.

"I think we sort of think of foster youth as not existing once they turn 18," she said.

Additionally, some students may be hesitant to participate in support programs. There is often a stigma these students associate with foster care. And it is a part of their lives many are eager to move past, she said.

"It's not like joining a club around wanting to be an engineer," Ramirez said. "Instead, it's very much centered around a traumatic event."

State Bureaucracies Help and Hurt SEFC Support Programs

Progress has been slow in some areas of the U.S. to implement these campus-based support systems. States have helped drive some of that progress, thanks to mandates that each campus have a liaison for SEFC.

But obstacles remain.

McConnell took her position at Fostering Lions after the state's passage of a 2019 omnibus bill that created a tuition waiver for SEFC. However, the act didn't go all the way to support these students, she said. It started by paying room and board and fees at Penn State. But now, the state only pays fees.

"I think the state does a pretty lousy job in supporting these students," she said.

She oversees the Fostering Lions Program at all the university's campuses, but it's only a part-time position. McConnell said she can only devote about 60% of her time to the program and its students.

Her goal before she retires is to make her position full-time so that her successor can dedicate more to Fostering Lions.

Norton of Texas State finds herself in a similar position.

Texas requires a liaison at all campuses. And while the state has a tuition waiver program that makes school free for SEFC, she said those costs fall back on the university. That means the institution may be hesitant to extend additional funding to improve the FACES program, meaning she has to do nearly all her own fundraising.

Additionally, Norton said she believes it means the school doesn't actively promote itself to foster youth, as it would create more costs for the institution.

"The university," she said, "sometimes doesn't want to draw attention to this population."