Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class on student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
During the past sixty years, institutions of higher education have made strides to open their doors to students from all walks of life and support their diverse needs once they arrive on campus. However, one subgroup of students, former foster youth, has mostly been overlooked and ignored by the higher education community. Former foster youth are individuals who have aged out of the foster care system. This normally occurs when they turn 18 and are emancipated from supervision by the courts. Once emancipated, former foster youth no longer receive health care coverage and many of them become homeless. Wolanin (2005) reports there are approximately 300,000 of these (former) foster youth between the ages of 18 and 25, the prime college-going years (p. v). Half of these youth (approximately 150,000) have graduated from high school, yet only 30,000 actually attend colleges and universities (Wolanin, 2005). Of those who attend college, research studies suggest that only 1120 percent of former foster youth graduate from a postsecondary institution (Emerson, 2006; Emerson, 2007; Foster Care Work Group, 2003; Wolanin, 2005).
Clearly there are multiple challenges that former foster youth face in attempting to enroll in and graduate from institutions of higher education. Academic advisers are well positioned to help these young people integrate into the college campus community and become successful students. This article explains the unique challenges facing former foster youth students and provides academic advisers with tools to assist these students successfully transition into and graduate from college.
Challenges Facing Former Foster Youth
While all incoming students face challenges as they transition into a collegiate setting, former foster youth face even greater challenges than those of their peers. Former foster youth arrive on college campuses overwhelmed and underprepared, because they often lack the independent living skills, study skills, and support systems to help them remain enrolled through graduation (Emerson, 2006; Emerson, 2007; Foster Care Work Group, 2003; Wolanin, 2005).
Because many young people in the foster care system live in multiple homes during their childhoods and lack consistent care and attention from adults, many are unprepared to live on their own and support themselves as college students. Thus, unlike students who grew up in their parents' homes, former foster youth require instruction in basic skills (e.g. money management, hygiene, housekeeping, and nutrition) (Foster Care Work Group, 2003, p. 12). Furthermore, they often face extreme financial hardship. Those aspiring to complete a postsecondary education struggle to support themselves to cover personal needs such as housing and food, let alone pay for college. It is also important to note that mental health problems are common among former foster youth, and many remain undiagnosed or untreated until they reach the college setting.
Overall, former foster youth are less academically prepared for postsecondary education than their peers. Because they generally moved from home to home, many former foster youth attended multiple elementary and secondary schools. Thus, they did not benefit from opportunities to learn from a cohesive and comprehensive K12 curriculum. Additionally, due to the haphazard pattern of their attendance in K12 schools, their motivation to excel in school is often poor.
In addition to lacking the academic skills set to thrive in postsecondary educational environments, former foster youth lack adequate support systems. For much of their lives, they were shuffled from home to home and thus likely did not learn how to develop and maintain significant relationships. Therefore, these young people may need encouragement and support to develop close and lasting relationships with peers and adults (Emerson, 2006; Emerson, 2007; Foster Care Work Group, 2003; Wolanin, 2005). Because they have not had a consistent support system, many former foster youth simply do not know much about higher education, thus limiting their aspirations to attend college. As a result, the concept of pursuing a college education seems unattainable as well as something they cannot fully value or comprehend.
In many ways former foster youth require additional help compared to their peers, but, unfortunately, they are often reluctant to seek assistance (Wolanin, 2005). Many are afraid to ask questions or seek help, because they wish to avoid the stigma of being a foster youth or because they assume no one is willing to help. As one former foster youth stated, more than anything, college is scary and overwhelming. You go to an environment and don't know what to do (Wolanin, 2005, p. 43). Academic advisers can play an integral role in helping to demystify the college campus.
The Role of Academic Advisers
Emerson (2006) explains that the most important key to success in college for former foster youth is to ensure students have regular contact with a trusted academic or program advisor who is knowledgeable about foster care and can help them navigate college support systems (p. 4). Academic advisers can and should serve as the primary advocates for former foster youth on a college campus. Having an individual to contact on campus who can refer former foster youth to other campus resources will help to demystify higher education and let students know they have an advocate on campus who wants to help them succeed (Orangewood Children's Foundation, 2005, p. 11).
Through mentorship and advocacy, academic advisers can assist former foster youth transition to universities. Mentorship and advocacy can offer foster youth the confidence and encouragement to continue when it seems too difficult or too futile (Foster Care Work Group, 2003, p. 26). These students need role models who will encourage them to strive for better lives and encourage them to pursue their aspirations. As mentioned above, former foster youth spend the majority of their lives without a support system. Academic advisers have the potential to be influential members of these students' support systems. Although academic advisers help all students, the rest of this article focuses on specific suggestions for advisers working with former foster youth to help them overcome the unique challenges they face.
During the first year in college, former foster youth may need either weekly or biweekly appointments with academic advisers. It is important to help them get off to a good start and to help them deal with problems early in the semester. During these appointments, academic advisers should assist students address areas in which they may need additional support, such as disability services, financial aid, counseling, or academic support services. In the early stage of these students' collegiate careers, academic advisers should offer to help them set up appointments with campus partners and, if possible, attend initial meetings with them, since students from foster care often have difficulties trusting adults, especially in new settings (Emerson, 2007, p. 9). Making a personal introduction to a financial aid officer or someone in the disability office can make a significant difference in ensuring the student will attend the initial appointment and continue to seek services. Financial aid counselors, academic support personnel, peer mentors, career counselors, and mental health counselors are campus partners with whom academic advisers should work closely in serving the former foster youth population (Emerson, 2006; Emerson, 2007; Foster Care Work Group, 2003; Wolanin, 2005).
Because of their lack of familiarity with higher education and their reluctance to ask for help, former foster youth need individuals who can answer their academic and nonacademic questions. Academic advisers need to be prepared to answer these kinds of questions. Advisers do not have to know all of the answers, but they do need to be able to refer former foster youth to appropriate campus and community resources.
Academic advisers should work with students to develop personal goals and action plans (Emerson, 2006; Emerson, 2007; Foster Care Work Group, 2003). Emerson (2006) explains the need to stress the importance of frequent interactions with professors, instructors, support staff, and other campus personnel (p. 4). The goal is to have former foster youth become integrated members of the campus community. Advisers can facilitate this by encouraging these young people to enroll in first-year seminars and participate in student life programming available to the entire campus community (Emerson, 2006). First-year seminars are a great way for former foster youth to connect with fellow incoming students in a nonthreatening and supportive environment.
As part of the students' personal action plans, academic advisers should assist former foster youth develop social and recreational goals. Participation in student organizations and residence hall activities are two easy ways these young people can make meaningful connections with fellow students. Additionally, introduction to campus resources related to physical fitness and healthful eating is necessary, as many former foster youth have never been offered these resources.
If an academic adviser works with multiple former foster youth, he or she should facilitate introductions to other former foster youth and/or set up a group meeting. By connecting with fellow students who are in similar situations, former foster youth will realize they are not alone. Ideally, students will create their own formal or informal groups to support and encourage each other.
Additional resources that may help advisers better understand and support former foster youth include:
- The Casey Family Programs, www.casey.org; the Annie E. Casey Foundation, www.aecf.org; and Orphan Foundation of America, orphan.org, which are three national organizations advocating for and providing additional resources and publications about former foster youth
- A selected bibliography titled Improving Higher Education Outcomes for Young Adults from Foster Care (resources, readings, and tools) can be found in http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=4195
- A list of scholarships for foster youth at www.collegescholarships.org/scholarships/foster.htm
- Foster Care Alumni of America, a support group for former foster youth, at www.fostercarealumni.org.
These resources, in addition to providing continual communication and encouragement, can help academic advisers support former foster youth.
While the challenges facing former foster youth may seem daunting, these young people also face great opportunities. Former foster youth can be successful college students and persist to graduation. They just need assistance to get there. Academic advisers can provide central support for former foster youth by serving as both advocates and motivators. Connecting students to the appropriate resources and helping them develop action plans for academic and co-curricular engagement will help ensure former foster youth integrate and thrive as members of the university community. More so than any other campus educators, academic advisers are in a position to assist former foster youth as they transition to independence and hopefully persist to graduation.