Last month was National Foster Care Month, a time to highlight the role each of us can play in enhancing the lives of children and youth in foster care. It’s a sobering fact to think that 400,000 children and youth are in foster care at any given time; in 2015, more than 670,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care.
And the numbers are even more stark when it comes to education. Foster kids are two times as likely to be absent from school than other children. Each time a child changes schools, it can result in a loss of four to six months of academic progress. Add to that the fact that 34 percent of 17- to 18-year-olds in foster care have experienced five-plus school changes, and they’ve lost more than a year-and-a-half of progress during their educational careers. High school dropout rates are three times higher for foster youth than for other low-income children.
These early experiences have devastating ripple effects once foster youth leave the K-12 system: Nationwide, less than 3 percent of foster youth graduate from a four-year college by age 26, compared to 45 percent of the general population nationally. The more than 20,000 individuals each year who age out of foster care are less likely than youth in the general population to graduate from high school and are less likely to attend or graduate college.
Statistics like these have profound personal resonance for me and my family. My dad was a psychologist with a PhD in family counseling. We talked all the time about my future, education options, about basic things like feelings and emotions. Foster kids don’t get that kind of experience. They hear things like “Someone’s coming to get you from group home to take you to a new place.” Or, “We don’t know your foster parents’ names yet, but please say goodbye to your old friends now; we’ve got to go meet your new family.”
Foster kids are worried about surviving the rest of the day, not their plans for 15 years down the road. They are focused on the basic needs of life: safety, security, stability. They don’t have the kinds of opportunities I had growing up.
Becoming a foster parent
In 2012, my wife and I got licensed to become foster parents. Over the past six years, we’ve taken in several kids of varying ages and helped see them along their educational and personal journeys. I’ve seen the struggles they face firsthand, and in my role as a higher-ed professional, I feel acutely aware of the unique challenges that foster youth face.
I’m also committed to tackling those challenges, pervasive though they may be. Research suggests that foster youth who received financial aid were 40 percent more likely to accrue 15 or more credits in one year compared to foster youth who didn’t. Helping foster youth succeed in higher education begins with helping them identify ways to pay, which is a massive challenge even for students with far more resources.
College support resources vary by state, and even where they do exist, how can foster children find them? Students who were wards of the court, as foster youth, prior to the age of majority in their state are classified as independent. Coupled with relatively low resources, they are most likely to be eligible to receive the maximum amount of Pell Grant funding. But many of these kids don’t worry about out filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They worry about where to sleep at night safely, and where their next meal will come from. And even those who do make it through the FAFSA face new and often unexpected hurdles; more than half of colleges ask for additional documentation—unnecessarily—to verify ward of the court prior status and or homelessness, another qualifier for independence.
We need stronger pathways and clearer access to resources
It’s the job of higher ed leaders to create clearer pathways to, and more support with, these resources. For many foster students, “a cell phone is life.” It’s one of a few constants in a world that changes far too often, a way to keep in touch with old friends and family, keep track of time, and connect with opportunities and support networks. Researchers at UVA and the University of Pittsburgh School of Education recently found that text message nudges and alerts led to higher FAFSA completion rates. That’s a simple, and potentially transformative, way to help foster youth access critical resources.
And that’s just the beginning. We have a lot of the information we need to help foster youth; we just need to use it. High schools know who their foster students are, because that data has to be self-reported. Could they share the information with community colleges to help provide a clearer pathway from high school to college? Could community college be free for all foster kids? What about a virtual counseling center to help foster youth navigate the complex and confusing journey of financing their education? We already know their cell phones are lifelines—why not give them the tools on that phone to make a life-changing decision?
Those of us with the privilege of thinking big about ways to support foster youth have the obligation to do so and to act on it. I encourage my colleagues in the higher ed community to think about what we all can do to help: from major policy shifts to the smallest text message nudge.