Fostering College Success: High School Hurdles Can Impede Path to Higher Ed

Students with experience in foster care are often left on their own to complete college applications and secure financial aid as they also strive to stay on track in high school.
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  • This is the third 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.
  • Advocates say the path to higher education is rarely laid out to students with experience in foster care.
  • Hurdles on that path start in high school, where these students have significantly lower graduation rates.
  • The hurdles teenagers in foster care who succeed in high school often face include completing college applications and complicated financial aid forms.

In many families, discussions about college start when children are young.

A family member may be an alumnus of a nearby university. Or maybe a high school guidance counselor works with students over many years to make sure they're taking the appropriate steps to eventually enroll in college.

It's one of the invisible benefits of being part of an intact family, said Julie Segovia, vice president of research and policy at HopeWell, a nonprofit social services agency headquartered in metro Boston with regional offices across Massachusetts.

"You're starting to build in sort of this expectation [of going to college] that a lot of intact families have," she told BestColleges. "That's your path, and you're constantly being exposed to it."

It's a path rarely laid out for those in the foster care system, Segovia said.

Children in foster care tend to be moved from household to household throughout their youth, even while in high school. That constant relocation means these young people often miss out on having a central figure in their life to encourage them to go to college and keep them on track, she said.

Many are operating most of their life in crisis mode, she said, which puts blinders on them when it comes to planning their future.

"When you're unsure of where you'll be living … it is hard to think of a future with college," Segovia said.

It's one reason why the college completion rate for these students today (3%) is the same as when she aged out of foster care more than 15 years ago. Segovia said there needs to be a set plan within every state to make sure that high schoolers in the foster system are being set on the college path that many intact families enjoy naturally.

Often, it's the luck of the draw in which caseworker a student has.

"One of the real fundamental flaws of the child welfare situation is that it shouldn't be the case that if you get Sarah you get to go to college, but if you get Suzie, she doesn't feel confident in this area, so you don't," Segovia said. "It's wildly inconsistent."

College Success Starts in High School

The first step in getting into college is to first make it through high school.

It's another step taken for granted by many students from intact families, but it can often be a challenge for children in the foster care system.

A group of people with experience in the foster care system recently told NBC News that they had taken classes at alternative schools for months or years, only to later discover that the classes they took wouldn't count toward graduation.

Other foster youths do attend traditional high schools, but being shuffled into different living situations sometimes meant changing schools in the middle of a semester. That could mean having to restart required courses and delaying the time to graduate.

The result: significantly lower high school graduation rates among those with foster care experience.

Some organizations, such as California's First Star, have successfully reversed this trend.

A 2021 report from the nonprofit found that 86% of First Star seniors graduated high school in the spring semester that year, and 93% of those graduates enrolled in higher education. The year prior, 100% of the program's students graduated high school, and 87% of those graduates enrolled in a college or university.

First Start CEO Lyndsey Wilson told BestColleges that the key is providing consistency for these high schoolers.

The foster system often bounces children from home to home, or from caseworker to caseworker. A First Star representative, meanwhile, will stick with a student from eighth grade through graduation.

"What we hope to be able to do for these students is be that proxy parent," she said.

That involves taking these high schoolers on campus tours and encouraging them to begin thinking about career paths.

"Our work has to be youth-centered," Wilson said, "and we have to center their experiences."

She added that First Star has also pushed policy changes that help graduate teenagers in the foster system.

For example, the nonprofit encouraged California to grant partial credit for courses when a student is pulled from one school during the semester. If a student completed 75% of a class, for example, they can still earn partial credit toward their high school degree requirement, making them more likely to graduate on time, she said.

Remedial Classes Hold Some Students Back

High school disruptions can have grave consequences for college students with experience in foster care (SEFC).

Angelique Day, an associate professor at the University of Washington and co-chair of the National Research Consortium on Foster Care and Higher Education, told BestColleges that foster youths are overrepresented in so-called "alternative" high schools.

These alternative schools rarely offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, meaning they don't have a chance to earn college credits while in high school.

Additionally, frequent moves cause many students to miss out on key development classes in high school or leave them unprepared for more advanced coursework.

Day said the result is that SEFC often play catch-up while in college.

A 2021 report comparing SEFC to low-income, first-generation college students found that it takes SEFC 13.5 semesters to graduate, on average. It takes the comparison group approximately 11 semesters.

Many financial aid programs, including the Pell Grant, are capped at 12 semesters of enrollment, Day said. That means the average SEFC has to pay out of pocket to complete their degree.

A large part of this is remedial classes. Because these students are playing catch-up, that same 2021 report found that 40% of SEFC took at least one remedial course while in college. Overall, students who take remedial classes are less likely to graduate than students who don't.

Day added that some scholarships and other financial aid cannot be applied to remedial classes, adding further financial burden.

Applying to College, Accessing Financial Aid Remain A High Hurdle

Even if all the academic issues are addressed, teenagers in foster care face other obstacles in the final steps of enrolling in college: applying to college and securing all available financial aid.

First off, getting an application filled out and deciding on a college can be challenging for many in the foster system.

Catherine Ramirez, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin who is researching SEFC, said there was no system in place when she was aging out of foster care to take her on tours of different campuses and discuss college options.

She added that once a student does have a college in mind, securing financial aid is another hurdle.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) added a question to inquire about whether an applicant is a ward of the state in 2002. However, even with this, many people with experience in foster care are required to verify their income because they claim that they have a $0 expected family contribution (EFC) on the form.

Ramirez explained it was a difficult process for her to verify this information, and she was originally denied because she couldn't prove she didn't have support. It was only with the help of a financial aid advisor at her soon-to-be institution that she filed as an independent, she said.

Colorado is one state that has taken steps to resolve the financial aid application 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.

As she examined more data on SEFC graduation rates and college enrollment, Zenzinger included in the bill funding for four full-time financial aid administrators to help these students get access to all the financial support available to them.

"That is the aspect of our bill that is not the status quo," she said.

Scaling state and nonprofit programs providing financial aid administrators and counselors to assist SEFC in navigating the college application process will be critical to improving outcomes, Ramirez said.

Otherwise, she said, that work is left to these students' caseworkers, who are not required to go this extra mile.

"It's left up to the goodwill of very burned-out people that are already overworked and underresourced," Ramirez said.