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Institutionalizing Support for College Students Impacted by Foster Care

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Despite the growing national media attention, shedding light on the precarious experiences of college students impacted by the foster care system, they remain on the margins of higher education research, policy and discourse. The data are clear though. On any given day there are nearly half of million youth in the foster care system (of which Black and Native American students are disproportionately represented) who have been subject to some form of abuse, neglect, or concerns about safety and wellbeing. Of those in care, anywhere between 20-25,000 will “age-out,” which refers to the process in which these youth are forced into adulthood (usually at age 18), often with few supports and resources. And despite maintaining high aspirations for college, the reality is that few realize this dream. Estimates from research have indicated that only about 7-13 percent of students impacted by foster care enroll in college and as little as 3 percent graduate with a bachelor’s degrees.

The challenges facing young adults impacted by foster care are numerous and well-documented. They range from difficulty meeting their basic needs and mental and behavioral challenges to academic under-preparation and informational barriers about resources and support available to them, among many other challenges. To be clear, however, hundreds of students with histories in foster care overcome seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, persisting to degree completion—and there is a great deal we can learn from “the 3%.” Instead, what I am suggesting is that colleges and universities have an institutional responsibility to meet the unique needs of this group by working to  address barriers that stymie their full participation in the academic and social spheres of campus life—and institutions who do not, conspire in their educational failure.

Dr. Royel M. JohnsonDr. Royel M. Johnson

I offer the following recommendations for educators and administrators working to institutionalize support for college students impacted by the foster care system:

  • Raise Institutional Awareness: As I have pointed out elsewhere, one significant challenge in supporting college students impacted by foster care is the lack of general public awareness about the child welfare system and issues pertaining to it. Consider findings from a national poll several years back indicating that roughly 83% of adults know very little to nothing about the experiences of youth in foster care. Included in that poll are likely faculty, staff, and administrators who work in higher education, with very little understanding of how their students’ foster care experience may impact their postsecondary education experiences and outcomes. Thus, educating institutional leaders and the broader higher education community about the lived realities of college students impacted by foster care is crucial for challenging stereotypical assumptions about what supports they may (or may not) need. One key thing all campuses should do, if they aren’t already, is pull data from student’s financial aid records to identify those who indicated “yes” to the FAFSA question asking students, “At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the ward of the court?” While it’s not the most precise measure, it does offer a starting point for identifying the group on campus and for better understanding their outcomes (e.g., retention, stop-out, time degree completion).


  • Address Basic Needs: One finding from a recent systematic review of literature I conducted on undergraduates formerly in foster care emphasized the difficulty they experience meeting their basic needs (referring to access to adequate food, housing, and safety), which may undermine engagement, sense of belonging, and degree attainment. Basic needs insecurity impacts a growing number of students from a range of backgrounds, however, those with a history in foster care are especially vulnerable, given the lack of support they often have from their biological family. As campus educators and administrators work to address basic needs issues on their campus, they should (a) make sure that students are aware of funds available to them through the Chafee Foster Care Program, which provides up to 5,000 each year to pursue higher education; (b) familiarize themselves with whether or not their state provides tuition waivers for current or former foster youth (and their requirements for accessing them); (c) encourage students to take advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as “food stamps”) and energy assistance programs, which can help mitigate costly living expenses, if they qualify; (d) provide emergency aid to cover unanticipated expenses that might otherwise negatively impact student success; and (e) offer year-round housing options for students in the residence halls or offer affordable housing vouchers to subsidize their rent for those who live off campus.


  • Challenge Traditional Assumptions about Family Support: Findings from research also indicate that some college students with histories in foster care experience social isolation and marginalization on campus, often as a result of their identity as a “former foster youth.” These feelings can be exacerbated when campuses host programs like “Mom’s Weekend” or hold “parent”-specific orientations. It’s important that college and universities adopt new language that includes broader conceptions of family, recognizing that all students do not arrive on our campuses with the same types or levels of support. And that for some groups, that term may take on an entirely different meaning, including a broad network of friends, social workers, and other non-biological family members. Indeed, campuses should be mindful of messaging to students (e.g., “invite your parents and family”) regarding other kinds of milestone celebrations on campus (e.g., graduation, induction into an honor’s society), that assume support from family. A colleague of mine offers further guidance elsewhere.

By no means is this list meant to be exhaustive, as there are a wide-range of promising practices that institutions can (and should) adopt to better meet the needs of this important, yet often overlooked population such as developing campus-based support programs; collaborating and partnering with local child welfare agencies to triage support; and diversifying educational programing to reflect the diversity of students’ identities and experiences, to name a few more examples. Instead, I hope this is a useful starting place for college educators and administrators who are ready to accept institutional responsibility and work to address needs of young adults on their campus who have been impacted by foster care.

Dr. Royel M. Johnson is an assistant professor and research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. You can follow him on Twitter @RoyelJohnson

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