Fostering College Success: An Invisible Student Population Faces Big Obstacles

College students formerly in foster care are often disappointed to find that higher education, like the foster care system, works against them at nearly every turn.
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  • This is the first 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.
  • Over 23,000 people age out of the foster care system each year, and while college is the goal for many, it can seem out of reach.
  • Advocates have been working for decades to remove obstacles and tailor support systems that have proved successful.
  • Institutions and nonprofits are scaling support systems, but student advocates say more is required from states and the federal government.

For many young adults who age out of America's foster system each year, college is the dream. For Selena, however, enrolling in college left her feeling invisible.

When COVID-19 swept through the country in March 2020, Selena, a Florida college student formerly in foster care, found herself homeless. She has asked that her last name be withheld so her biological family would not contact her.

Selena's school at the time, Florida SouthWestern State College, moved to remote learning on March 13, 2020, and shuttered student housing five days later. While most students returned home to quarantine from the virus with family, Selena had nowhere to go and was offered no assistance or services from her school.

Fortunately, a friend took her in, Selena told BestColleges, and she was able to proceed with remote learning to earn her associate degree. Today, she is pursuing a bachelor's degree at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"If they didn't let me stay with them," she said, "who else would I turn to?"

Of the more than 23,000 people who age out of the foster care system each year, approximately 80% hope to attain a college degree, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Those who work with and guide these young people say they are a resilient and resourceful group — traits often born out of necessity from years of navigating a complex foster care system that doesn't always have their best interests in mind.

However, college students formerly in foster care are often disappointed to find the higher education system — once again — works against them at nearly every turn.

Whether it be from a lack of financial support or, as Selena experienced, a campus that assumes all students come from intact families, obstacles arise that more "traditional" college students ages 18-23 don't even perceive.

These obstacles — things the majority of students likely take for granted each academic year — make earning a degree an uphill climb for thousands of people formerly in foster care. The result is a shockingly low completion rate, as less than 3% of people who age out of foster care go on to attain a degree at any point in their life.

The challenges are not uniform, and neither are the solutions. States and institutions vary on how they've addressed this issue — or whether they've even addressed it at all.

Still, many experts believe that progress is being made.

Angelique Day is a researcher at the University of Washington's School of Social Work whose study focuses on the outcomes of students with experience in foster care (SEFC). She's been able to see the progression as more states institute tuition waivers to make college more affordable for these students.

Higher education has also come a long way since she was a student fresh out of the foster care system.

She recalled having to lie on her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when she enrolled in college because the form required applicants to either have a dependent or be a dependent themselves if they were younger than 24. It wasn't until 2001 that FAFSA added the option to identify as a ward of the state, Day said.

There has been little federal action to aid college students formerly in the system over the past decade, she said. Nearly all progress has been at the state level.

"We really do need help on the national stage," Day said.

Behind the Numbers

College completion and retention programs have grown in popularity in recent years. But data implies those programs haven't reached the SEFC population.

A spring 2021 study co-authored by Day compared the success rates of SEFC to first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds. From a sample of over 800 students enrolled at a prominent four-year university in the Midwest over a 10-year period, it found that those from foster care were significantly less likely to graduate on time, if at all.

These students were, however, more likely to re-enroll if they stopped out.

The study also found that it took SEFC who didn't stop out an average of 13.5 semesters to earn their degree. It took the comparison group 11 semesters, on average.

This study's findings match those from a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. GAO's analysis discovered that 72% of SEFC had no degree or certificate within six years of entering college, which was far greater than for low-income students (57%) and the national average (49%).

That's not to mention how often college is seemingly out of reach to begin with.

A 2017 study, also co-authored by Day, found that only 58% of SEFC between the ages of 17 and 19 had a high school or GED diploma, compared to 87% of those with no foster care involvement.

These fatalistic numbers are not lost on students aging out of foster care and thinking about college.

Jamie Bennett, a former campus coach for SEFC who herself was formerly in care, said these statistics paint an uphill climb for students looking to get into college. Too often, students who have been in the foster care system are told about all the ways they won't succeed, rather than getting the tools and encouragement they need to succeed.

"Anything that you see about a person who has been in foster care is negative," she said. "They're going to be unemployed, homeless, in prison, poor. That's all we hear; the narrative out there is deficit-based."

Bennett now manages the training and consulting firm Cetera, which trains campus-based coaches on how to help SEFC enrolled in college. Part of her advocacy involves highlighting the fact that approximately 80% of those in the system want to go to college, she said, rather than focusing on success rates.

"Young people that have gone through the system are adaptive and flexible. There is going to be a high level of nimbleness and resilience," she said. "Throw a challenge at a young person in the foster system and they're going to find a way to move through it."

Institutions, Nonprofits Bridge the Gap

Bennett primarily works with colleges and universities looking to improve their campus-based support programs to aid this population of students.

Essentially, these programs offer support for students formerly in the foster system through coaching, funding, or sometimes just with a person to go to for advice while enrolled. There is no standard system for campus-based support programs, and they can vary wildly from state to state and school to school.

For instance, Florida and California now require that all higher education institutions have a campus "liaison" for those from the foster system. The campus liaison acts as point-person for students from foster care, designed to help them navigate the complex higher education system.

However, these positions are rarely funded, and they aren't always tied to broader support programs.

Michigan and two-year institutions in California are the only places with state financial support to run these programs, Day said. Elsewhere, these systems are made possible through private philanthropy.

The benefits these programs provide can be invaluable.

Selena said the liaison at her current school, Florida Gulf Coast University, helps by sending scholarship information her way continually. She added that when the school got a donation of notebooks and other essential school supplies, her liaison made sure SEFC were in line to benefit.

Some ways these programs help the SEFC population include:

  • Aiding students experiencing food insecurity
  • Helping students secure housing
  • Guiding students through financial aid processes
  • Putting students in contact with local counselors
  • Offering emergency grants
  • Connecting students with other SEFC

Christine Norton, who manages a liaison program at Texas State University, told BestColleges that getting SEFC to graduation can have compounding benefits for future generations of foster care youth. The most common majors for SEFC at Norton's school are criminal justice and social work, as the students' life experiences motivate them to improve the system in which they spent their childhoods.

An Uphill Climb for State Support

Financial security is a chief concern among students formerly in foster care, but some state programs help assuage that anxiety.

According to a database maintained by the University of Washington, 24 states offered statewide tuition waiver programs for SEFC as of 2021. Colorado will soon join the list, Day said, thanks to recently passed legislation that went into effect for the 2022-23 academic year.

Tuition waivers force public institutions to waive tuition and fees for people who say they are wards of the state on their FAFSA.

However, the specifics can vary by state.

A 2017 analysis of the then-22 tuition waiver programs found that six states set a minimum for how long a student must be in foster care (between six months and two years, depending) to qualify. All but two states have a time requirement for when a student must apply, with five states saying SEFC must apply before they turn 22 years old.

The recently passed legislation in Colorado is a prime example of why some states have been slow to enact similar programs.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, the primary sponsor for the bill, told BestColleges that issues affecting foster youth are unknown to most lawmakers. Even she didn't realize this was an area that needed addressing until she came across a task force report from 2018 while working on a different bill last year.

"When I started pulling together people to talk about the issue, I learned that in Colorado, our foster youth graduated from high school at the lowest rate for any category in the state," she said.

What followed was a monthslong process mired by speed bumps and rewrites before she drafted legislation that appealed to most.

Zenzinger said the first obstacle was with institutions. The original bill was a full tuition waiver, but colleges and universities said it would put an undue burden on their own financials.

"In Colorado, we do not fund our higher education system very well, so they were not happy with being completely on the hook for paying for it," she said.

The next draft split the cost of the waiver program evenly between institutions and the state, which appealed to representatives from the schools.

Someone formerly in the foster care system then brought up the next issue, which was that the waiver was a last-dollar program. That means it covered the cost of tuition that scholarships and grants didn't. Zenzinger said the representative from Fostering Great Ideas spoke up and said that would cheat her out of money she earned, essentially saying her scholarships would be useless.

So, Zenzinger's bill changed yet again.

The new version expanded the waiver to cover all expenses, including fees and room and board. That way, these students could avoid exorbitant out-of-pocket costs.

"Having the foster youth and adults that were in the foster care system, having their perspective at the table really influenced the legislation," Zenzinger said. "I was just ignorant. I thought I was doing a good thing, but I did not have the lived experience to know better."

The last step was convincing her fellow legislators that the price tag was worthwhile. By changing the bill to have the state foot some of the cost, the bill would cost the state an estimated $2.5 million, a significant portion of the $40 million available in allocations.

Ultimately, she had to make another minor cut to the bill to appease a Republican co-sponsor, but the bill managed to pass.

More Progress Required From Washington, D.C.

Many of the advocates BestColleges spoke with said there is much room for improvement at the national level to accommodate college students formerly in foster care.

In 2001, Congress created the Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) Program. Under that program, students are eligible for up to $5,000 per year to use on education expenses including tuition, books, fees, and housing.

For students in more than a dozen states, this is the only financial assistance available specifically to SEFC.

Experts and advocates have their eye on three pieces of legislation that could help, said Catherine Ramirez, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on SEFC in higher education.

The first proposal prioritizes housing access for former foster youth, Ramirez told BestColleges. It would require colleges to provide on-campus housing through holiday breaks or would offer financial support to these students who opt for off-campus living.

The Helping Foster and Homeless Youth Achieve Act would waive college application fees for foster youth applying for colleges.

"It is an extreme barrier paying $30-$50 per institution when you're on your own," she said.

Lastly, the Fostering Success in Higher Education Act comes with the biggest price tag, but would offer the widest range of support for college students formerly in the foster care system. She said it would set aside $150 million annually to fulfill many of the unmet needs of this population.

This is the third legislative session that U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, a Democrat representing Pennsylvania, has proposed this bill, Day said. The goal is to have it be incorporated into any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but reauthorization efforts have failed in recent years.

"We need to set these students up for success with the necessary academic and financial support, as well as health and mental services they need," Casey said in a February statement. "By investing in these students today, we are creating our country's next generation of leaders."