Helping Foster Kids Get Through College

family 2013

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Many young people coming from foster care lack the support and guidance they need during the college years, resulting in very few going on to continue their education.

If colleges were to implement a structured support system to help foster youth, these students would have a far greater chance of success, according to new findings by researchers at the University of the Pacific.

The study is one of the few to focus on the experiences of foster youth in college. This population is difficult to identify because the students, fearing social stigma, rarely disclose their foster-care history on campus.

The college graduation rate for students coming from foster care is only 3 percent, among the lowest of any demographic group in the country. And this is unlikely to change unless community colleges set up formal programs to assist foster youth both financially and academically, according to the study.

“Informal programs are less likely to work since foster youth lack guidance and have learned to rely on structured institutional programs,” said study co-author Melinda Westland, a graduate student at University of the Pacific’s Gladys L. Benerd School of Education.

“Simply having a dedicated person whom foster youth can go to and ask questions — something many of these young people have never had — could really make a difference to their college success,” she added.

For the study, Westland and co-researcher Ronald Hallett, Ph.D., an associate professor of education at University of the Pacific, observed the experiences of seven foster youth over a 2-1/12 semester journey through a California community college.

Three factors stood out during the study: Since the participants’ foster families had not owned or provided access to computers, most of the youth had only basic or nonexistent computer skills when they entered college.

Money was also a problem. While many college students get at least some financial help from their families (studies show parents provide an average of $2,200 a year to children up to age 34), foster youth often have no outside financial help.

Finally, although the foster youth believed that earning a four-year degree was a pathway to future stability, they were confused about the process of transferring from a community college.

The researchers conclude that foster youth who enroll in community college need additional financial support, structured campus programming, and psychosocial support. For example, students in the study who became aware of campus resources, such as a tutoring center, took advantage of those resources and began to have more success.

“A structured support program could help foster youth find and use resources already available to students,” Hallett said. “That alone could make a significant difference.”

A student identified as Amanda summed up the views of most participants in the study: “I wish I had someone who cared about my future as much as I did, so they could help me along that path.”

The study findings will be presented during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago.

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