Fostering College Success: Family Privilege Eludes Students Aged Out of System

Students with experience in foster care find themselves at a disadvantage in a higher education system designed for students afforded the security of an intact family.
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  • This is the fourth 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.
  • Family privilege is the idea that young people who come from an intact family have an advantage over those with experience in the foster care system.
  • Those with experience in foster care told BestColleges that higher education illuminates this privilege starkly.
  • Students with experience in foster care encounter family privilege when they're applying to college, while living in campus housing, and through microaggressions.

Months before she aged out of the foster care system, Angela Hoffman-Cooper knew she had one chance to earn the scholarship she needed to attend her dream school.

There was an academic competition at Michigan Technological University, 440 miles from the town where Hoffman-Cooper had bounced between foster families during her teenage years. A former caseworker drove her to the college in the northern reaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula — in a blizzard no less — and she won a scholarship competition to attend the school.

When it came time to move into her dorm, she loaded up her belongings in the roofing truck that belonged to that caseworker's partner, and the duo drove her to the campus that would change her life forever.

It was support that many other youths with experience in foster care never receive, said Hoffman-Cooper, who today is a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University and a Foster Scholar with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Michigan Tech and a master's in educational leadership and policy from the University of Utah.

"Had it not been for them and their willingness to go above and beyond," she said, "I would not have been able to get the scholarship that allowed me to attend the institution I chose."

Privilege is a concept discussed more openly in recent years, usually referring to the advantages someone gains based on their gender, race, and/or ethnicity. But people with experience in the foster system told BestColleges that there's another type of privilege that often goes undiscussed: family privilege.

It's the idea that young people who come from an intact family — meaning they had the chance to be raised by family members, usually parents — have a leg up on many aspects of life over those with experience in the foster care system.

Those with experience in foster care will also tell you higher education illuminates this privilege starkly.

The issue goes back to the very roots of higher education and the foster system, said Hoffman-Cooper, who has researched the history of America's foster care system for her Ph.D.

When the first U.S. university was establishing itself in the 1630s, the prevailing foster care system was slavery or indentured servitude, she said. Up until advocates established the foster care system as we know it in the 1930s, orphans were often put on trains to work on farms.

"While higher education is being developed," Hoffman-Cooper explained, "this is what was happening to the nation's foster care children."

The result is centuries of developing a higher education system without thinking of these students. It wasn't until the turn of the 21st century that the federal government began to pass legislation with students with experience in foster care (SEFC) in mind.

Still, hundreds of years of tradition are hard to break, especially when their impacts on SEFC often go unnoticed.

Today, experts told BestColleges, there are three areas in which family privilege most impacts SEFC: identifying and enrolling in a school, housing security, and microaggressions against them.

Barriers to Enrollment Persist

As Hoffman-Cooper's experience shows, something as seemingly benign as a student moving into a college dorm can be a heavy lift for SEFC. But family privilege doesn't just impact SEFC on the way to campus – it may prevent them from ever enrolling.

It's commonplace for prospective students to take a tour of colleges they are interested in before applying. And a recent study even found that students who visit a college campus during middle school or high school are more likely to eventually enroll at a postsecondary institution.

But for youth in the foster system, a college visit presents multiple challenges, said Catherine Ramirez, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on SEFC in higher education.

Very few high schoolers in the system have a car to transport themselves, oftentimes leaving it up to caseworkers or foster parents to take them, she told BestColleges.

Few programs introducing teenagers in foster care to college life exist, and one that appeared most promising was stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cheri McConnell, the primary coach of the Fostering Lions campus-based support program at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), created the Fostering Little Lions program to bring youths in foster care to university campuses during the summer to stay overnight and get a feel for the college experience.

Unfortunately, she told BestColleges, the program has been temporarily suspended since the onset of the pandemic.

Once a student decides on a school, there are other issues that may prevent them from enrolling immediately after high school, Ramirez said. For instance, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application process presents unique challenges for foster youths.

FAFSA initially asks for tax filings that likely aren't available to these students, Ramirez said.

Likewise, these students often don't have family to list on the forms, leading to an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0, she said. This makes these students more likely to be chosen for income verification and forces them to explain their circumstance.

College Dorms Don't Provide Housing Security

Semester breaks are times many college students look forward to. But for SEFC, they can be a cause of anxiety and stress.

Hoffman-Cooper said finding housing during academic breaks is one of the most common obstacles SEFC encounter.

Higher education's calendar is still structured around the assumption that students have a home to which they can return when classes aren't in session. On-campus housing rarely allows these students to remain in their dorm during breaks, she said. At the same time, some schools require that students live on campus as undergraduates in order to earn certain scholarships.

"I spent my holiday breaks trying to find friends that I could stay with," Hoffman-Cooper recalled.

Housing is also a monumental expense. While government scholarships, grants, and tuition waivers can assuage much of the cost of college, housing is rarely covered.

That forces many SEFC to work while also enrolled in college full time.

But a new law in Colorado may serve as a model to address this issue.

Colorado Sen. Rachel Zenzinger spearheaded the state's recently passed tuition waiver program for SEFC. She wrote the bill after learning that Colorado foster youths graduated from high school at the lowest rate for any category in the state, she told BestColleges.

Her original plan was to create a tuition waiver program for SEFC, she said. However, an advocate with experience in the foster care system told her that a "last-dollar" proposal would cheat SEFC out of scholarship and grant money they earned, while not taking into account other expenses.

As a result, Zenzinger said she amended the proposal so that the waiver would cover all tuition, fees, and living expenses.

Looking back, she's grateful that the advocate spoke up.

"I was just ignorant," Zenzinger said. "I thought I was doing a good thing, but I did not have the lived experience to know better."

Microaggressions, Big Impact

Family privilege on campus also works in smaller ways.

Consider the tradition of "parents weekend."

Colleges host these weekends — usually in the fall, and usually revolving around a sporting event — to encourage students' family members to get a feel for the college experience.

But Ramirez and Hoffman-Cooper said such events can make SEFC feel that they're being excluded from the "traditional" college experience.

Similarly, many colleges have a parents orientation prior to a student's first semester. Some schools will hold this orientation concurrently with a student's orientation, forcing SEFC to choose which one they plan to attend, she said.

Hoffman-Cooper recalled attending parents orientation on her own, which was the only way she found out about the billing process for school.

Additionally, Hoffman-Cooper said she listed herself as her "parental contact" so that she would receive relevant info. That sometimes meant she'd get emails encouraging her to buy herself a care package, which served as a reminder that she didn't have someone to send her care packages as a "traditional" student would.

The same feeling of "otherness" resurfaces when universities ask a student to list an emergency contact, she said during a recent panel discussion organized by HopeWell, a nonprofit social services agency headquartered in Boston.

Or when going to the university health office and being questioned about her family's health history.

Or when a campus tour guide assumes the adult accompanying a prospective student is a mother or father.

"These things continue to pile on," Hoffman-Cooper said.

Recognize the Problem, Rethink the System

With the number of ways family privilege shapes higher education, facing the problem may seem daunting.

But to experts, the answer seems simple: Stop making assumptions.

So many of the obstacles and microaggressions stem from the fact that at nearly every level, colleges and universities assume that a student comes from an intact family. However, with proper training and an awareness campaign, institutions can help wean administrators, faculty, professors, and other students off that instinctual assumption.

And students with experience in foster care aren't the only ones who suffer from these assumptions.

International students with families hundreds or thousands of miles away could also benefit from this shift in mindset, especially those unable to travel to and from home regularly. Additionally, LGBTQ+ students estranged from their immediate families could find solace in not needing to include their parents in their college experience.

In order to address this problem, institutions must first acknowledge it, said Julia Segovia, vice president of research and policy at HopeWell.

"The first step is to recognize this sort of life strain exists," she said. "The second step is to figure out how to address it."

As it stands now, Hoffman-Cooper said each time a SEFC has to self-disclose their background, it reinforces the belief that they are "abnormal." Because, if they were normal, the processes would be in place already.

"If institutions rethink their services," she said, "it'll benefit a lot of students."