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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 23, No. 1
May 2018

Promoting College Success for Youth in Foster Care

Many teens and young adults in the U.S. want to attend college. This is true for youth in foster care, too. While all youth must overcome challenges to achieve a college degree, youth in care face additional barriers.

Higher education outcomes for youth in foster care are far worse than for the general population. On average, only 20% of college-qualified youth in foster care attend college, compared with 60% of their non-foster care peers. Only 4% of youth in foster care graduate from college, compared to 24% of the general population (Courtney, 2011; Kirk, 2010; Salazar, 2013).

To do better by youth in foster care, we must act on what we know about the preparation and support they need to succeed in college.

Supporting Academic Readiness
Foster care alumni are often at a disadvantage academically. On average, they have lower high school GPAs than the general population of college-age students. They also tend to have fewer academic skills, such as study, time management, and problem solving skills (Salazar, 2013). Among youth in foster care who drop out of college, 26% report the work was too challenging (Courtney, 2011). Given that academic preparation for college happens prior to college admission, it is important to focus on the academic needs of youth in foster care much earlier in their education.

Minimizing school moves is key. Youth lose on average 4-6 months of educational progress each time they change schools (McNaught, 2009). If school moves occur, child welfare workers need to collaborate closely with schools to ensure the school provides opportunities for the child to catch up to their grade level.

In addition, teachers and administrators often underestimate the abilities of students in foster care and have lower expectations for their achievement (Benner, 2007). Research has consistently demonstrated a relationship between low teacher expectations and poor educational outcomes. Child welfare workers should advocate for youth who want to attend college to ensure they are getting both the academic rigor and skills they need.

Campus-Based Social Support
Social support during college is also key. Social support helps students navigate the many challenges related to attending and completing college. However, due to placement in out-of-home care and placement disruptions, youth in care are less likely to have social supports. In addition, it can be more challenging for youth in care to reach out for support while in college due to feeling stereotyped or stigmatized by those who don't understand their experiences (Salazar, 2013).

To address these concerns, many colleges and universities are developing programs to help youth in foster care entering college to develop and maintain support networks. "Early start" programs bring these youth to campus during the summer and provide free room and board, peer mentors, social activities and classes to help ease the transition to college (Geiger, 2017).

Homebase, a college ministry on the campus of Western Carolina University, is another example. This facility, a partnership between WCU and Baptist Children's Home, focuses on the needs of foster care alumni. This program is led by a former pastor and a licensed therapeutic foster parent.

Programs like these build support networks and connect youth in care to others who understand their experiences. Research shows support networks are a factor in college retention, academic success, and other positive student outcomes (Geiger, 2017).

Mental Health Support
Many youth in foster care have a history of trauma and higher rates of mental health diagnoses than the general population (Courtney, 2011). Of young adults exiting foster care, 54% have at least one mental health diagnosis. One in four have PTSD, a condition that increases students' risk of disengaging from college (Salazar, 2013).

Being on their own for the first time and experiencing the normal stressors of college life can trigger a recurrence of mental health symptoms. Even if youth received mental health treatment while in care, many lose access to therapists when in college (Dworsky, 2010). While campus health programs offer counseling, typically these services are not focused on the specific needs of youth in foster care. Lack of access to providers and inadequate health care coverage can also be challenges for foster care alumni in college (Salazar, 2013).

Child welfare workers can help support youth in foster care in the transition to college by researching available mental health options and working to link current treatment providers to new ones. In addition, youth need to learn about health insurance options before they age out of care.

Financial Support
Financial challenges are one of the most commonly cited reasons for not completing a college degree. Because many youth in care have no financial safety net, they need to be prepared in advance for financial obstacles common among young adults. Youth in foster care who have not successfully completed college cite needing to work multiple jobs, not being able to secure year-round housing, not receiving adequate financial aid, and not having access to transportation as examples of the financial barriers they face (Salazar, 2013; Courtney, 2011; Davis, 2006).

Recent federal policy has acknowledged the need to support youth in foster care in attending college, and programs have been developed to provide access to financial resources and additional supports. In North Carolina these programs are NC Reach and ETV (see box below).

NC Reach and ETV

NC Reach is a state-funded scholarship offered to qualified applicants for up to 4 years of undergraduate study at NC public colleges and universities. Funding is awarded after other public funds and scholarships have been applied. NC Reach provides comprehensive student support, including mentors, care packages, and internships. For eligibility and other information about NC Reach, visit

ETV. The North Carolina Education & Training Voucher Program (ETV) is a federally-funded, state-administered program for youth who were in U.S. foster care. Students may receive up to $5,000 a year for qualified school related expenses. Funding is limited and available on a first-come, first-serve basis to eligible students. Applicants must complete the ETV application, which includes confirmation from the school each semester of the student's enrollment, the cost of attendance, and their unmet need. For eligibility and other information about ETV in North Carolina, visit

Practice Implications
Although youth in foster care face many challenges, there are specific services and supports we can put in place to make it easier for them to attend and graduate from college. Specific steps child welfare professionals and their agencies can take include the following:

  • Increase academic stability by preventing school moves.
  • Encourage youth to attend college.
  • Ensure youth to have access to college preparatory classes and are learning other academic success skills in high school.
  • Focus on support networks; make sure youth know what is available at the college they attend.
  • Find out if there are special programs or services specifically for youth in foster care to help them transition to college.
  • Act as a liaison to mental health providers and help the youth research available mental health supports while in college.
  • Educate youth about NC Reach and ETV; help them apply.
Advice from a Foster Care Alumna
An interview with Megan Holmes, BSW

When did you first start thinking about college?
In some ways, school was my way of escaping what was going on at home. I started thinking of college around sophomore year in high school. I knew I wanted better for myself than what I had at the time, and I felt college would help me get that. Also, my godmother was always very supportive of me excelling academically.

What's helped you most in pursuing higher education?
I have a very strong faith and a supportive church community. The pastor and members of my church have been very encouraging. SaySo has been incredibly helpful and supportive, too, as have NC Reach and ETV. I couldn't have gotten through college without these supports!

What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Finding emotional support. College is when you learn how to move beyond what happened to you and become who you are. You need support to work through that. Don't be afraid to ask for help! A lot of youth who have been in foster care have trouble asking for help.

Student counseling services wasn't very helpful. They didn't understand my specific situation. I had to find other connections by getting involved in things outside of class. I was president of the gospel choir and I became close with the advisor to the choir. She was incredibly supportive and is still a resource to me.

Housing instability was also a huge challenge. Aging out of foster care at 21 was hard. When I was aging out, I was working two jobs and had to take an overload class schedule (18 hours). Thankfully, I lived on campus then, or I fear I wouldn't have had a place to live. Youth need to be prepared in advance for this transition and have plans to make sure they can continue on in school.

How can child welfare workers help?

  • Be more available. Sometimes workers are so busy they can't be as available as they want, but it is so important for youth to feel you want them to succeed and you can help them to accomplish their goals. Go with youth to visit colleges. Help them explore options.

  • Be encouraging. Don't assume college isn't something youth want or can do.

  • Actively prepare youth. Help plan the transition to college and what will happen when the youth ages out. Plan ahead: don't wait until the last minute!

  • Share information about resources. I have found a lot of workers don't know about NC Reach or ETV, or else they are just not telling youth about these options. Make sure youth know what resources are available.

References for this and other articles in this issue