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Underserved: Supporting Students with Foster Care Experiences

by Chequita S. Brown / Sep 14, 2022

The number of students with foster care experience enrolled at colleges and universities nationwide has nearly doubled within the last two decades (National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 2018; Wolanin, 2005). To ease young people’s transition from foster care to college, several two- and four-year institutions initiated targeted campus programming and wrap-around supports to increase retention and college success. Despite their growing presence on campus, current and former foster youth remain largely overlooked as a student population at postsecondary institutions. Myriad of factors contribute to foster youths' institutional invisibility, such as students' hesitancy to disclose their foster care background (Kinarsky, 2017; Tobolowsky et al., 2018) and postsecondary professionals' inability to identify this vulnerable population (Dworsky & Perez, 2010; Piel et al., 2020). These factors pose a problem for foster youth on campus because unrecognized student populations are often underserved and unsupported. 

Research documents various barriers foster youth may encounter while in and post-foster care. Foster youth often experience placement instability and frequent school changes that disrupt their academic progression (Davis, 2006). Though over 70% aspire to earn a college degree, foster youths' educational gaps often leave them ill-prepared for college rigor (Dworsky & Perez, 2010; National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 2018; Piel, 2018; Wolanin, 2005). Non-academic barriers such as housing insecurity, mental and emotional instability, and insufficient adult and financial support are detrimental to foster youths' educational attainment (Fryar et al., 2017; Hallett & Westland, 2015; McMillen et al., 2005; Okpych & Courtney, 2018). Of those who matriculate at a postsecondary institution, roughly 3%-11% will earn a college degree (Dworsky, 2018; Wolanin, 2005). 

Clearly, students with foster care experience require campus-based support and advocacy to address their holistic needs as college students. Although postsecondary professionals are frontline support for diverse student populations on campus, staff and faculty are unaware of and unprepared to address foster youths' unique challenges related to having been in foster care and its impact (e.g., mentally, limited familial support, housing insecurity) on their college success (Dworsky, 2018; Tobolowsky et al., 2017). Over the years, the changing demographics on Illinois college campuses have inspired a range of support programs and resources that cater to the needs of various student populations such as military affiliate, LGBTQUIA+ , disabled, international, low-income, and first-generation students. However, direct services and support for students with foster care backgrounds are largely non-existent on these same Illinois college campuses. 

Recently, the Illinois General Assembly enacted the Higher Education Housing and Opportunities Act (2021) to address the void in services for current and former foster youth at postsecondary institutions. Effective August 1, 2022, postsecondary institutions must designate at least one campus employee within financial aid, campus housing, or any select department as a liaison for college students with foster care experience and homeless students. Liaisons should be trained and knowledgeable of resources and support available to current/former foster youth and homeless students on campus. In addition to providing support, liaisons must track students' retention and graduation rate at the institution (Section (10)(b)(4)), and train other campus employees to identify students with foster care experience and housing insecurity issues enrolled at the institution (Section (10)(b)(10)).  

Indeed, implementing the campus liaison role is a step towards increasing awareness of current and former foster youth on campus. Given the range of compounding challenges facing students with foster care experience, this population would benefit from supportive, highly skilled campus liaisons and other professionals at the institution who can address academic and non-academic barriers that impede educational attainment. While the Higher Education Housing and Opportunities Act (2021) is in effect, it is in the initial stages and has yet to be operationalized on many Illinois campuses. Nevertheless, there are strategies current campus professionals can employ to enhance their understanding and skills to serve this vulnerable student population. 

  • Educate yourself. It is imperative to understand common barriers to foster youths' college success. An awareness of potential challenges provides insight into possible solutions and approaches to address certain issues as they arise. For example, foster youth are likely to have limited financial support and knowledge about financial resources available for college. Campus professionals can learn about and be prepared to share financial aid resources for foster youth, independent students, and homeless students. 
    Housing security is another common challenge for foster youth. Foster youth are likely to matriculate at a two-year institution (Havlicek et al., 2021), yet most two-year institutions do not provide campus housing. Although four-year institutions typically offer campus housing and a meal plan, without year-round housing, students with foster care backgrounds and homeless students may lack lodging during holidays and school breaks. Campus professionals can increase their knowledge of housing and dining policies at their institution. Since most four-year institutions offer year-round housing options for international students, it is helpful to ask if similar arrangements are available for other student populations with unique housing needs, such as foster youth. Educating oneself on challenges and thinking through potential solutions related to foster youths' unique needs can prepare professionals to better support and advocate for current and former foster youth on campus. 
  • Avoid making assumptions. It is easy to assume undergraduate students arrive on campus with supportive networks (e.g., family, friends, mentors). However, students with foster care experience will likely begin their college journey with limited adult support and guidance. Without this understanding, campus professionals can make seemingly casual assumptions about a student that unknowingly triggers unhealthy memories or emotions. For example, in my own practice, I made a similar mistake, when asking students if they were looking forward to seeing their parents for Family Weekend. One student's facial reaction and body language was telling. It seemed I'd made her uncomfortable. Later in the semester, that student disclosed details about her family dynamic and independent student status, which explained her reaction to the family weekend comment. This experience taught me that general inquiries are more appropriate when interacting with students. Instead of assuming students would participate in campus-sponsored events such as parents'  and family weekends, best practices suggest making a general inquiry like, "there are several events on campus this weekend. Are you planning to participate in any of the activities?". This approach allows campus staff to inquire about students' socialization on campus without making inappropriate assumptions that can be emotionally triggering. 
  • Leverage existing campus supports. Although some institutions do not offer specialized support for collegians with foster care backgrounds, campus professionals can leverage training resources and supports through existing campus departments. Cross-campus collaborations among support offices such as counseling services, student housing, and financial aid can yield strategies to best serve current and former foster youth at the institution. For instance, academic departments can collaborate with student housing to establish living-learning communities for students with foster care backgrounds to support their academic and social development (Amechi, 2016). Further, collaborations with other campus units, such as social work and psychology departments, may provide access to faculty, staff, and graduate students who are knowledgeable of and can offer training related to the needs and challenges facing students with foster care backgrounds (Geiger et al., 2016). While it may not be feasible to establish and implement a campus-based program that targets students with foster care backgrounds, postsecondary professionals can explore cross-campus collaborative efforts to identify and provide services that equitably support this traditionally underserved population on campus.

In sum, college students with foster care experience are a growing population at postsecondary institutions. Though many aspire to earn a college degree, only a small percentage will accomplish this goal. Indeed, no one solution will address the needs of this student population, but having targeted support can surely ease the transition from foster care to college and beyond. As more current and former foster youth matriculate at colleges and universities, it is crucial that frontline campus support units (e.g., academic advising, financial aid, student housing, counseling) are aware of and prepared to support their holistic needs. Without trained professionals who can recognize and support their academic and social needs, current and former foster youth will remain an underserved student population on campus. 


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