The journey to a diploma was anything but easy for Giselle John, who recently graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York at the age of 27. After aging out of foster care at 21, she took two years off. One year was so she could work to make some money to afford college. The other was to deal with a depressive episode in which she tried to commit suicide. She still has $7,700 in bills as a result of the hospitalization.
“I’m a pretty responsible person, but I just got tired,” she says. “And I had to struggle with my own demons.”
A new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy offers recommendations for policy makers to help people like John cope with such demons and build their lives through postsecondary education. Researchers cite a vast need for improved independent living skills programs and access to mental health care for students who have aged out of the child welfare system. Foster care experts — including former foster youth — largely agree, and say that that without these supports, foster youth will continue to be underrepresented in higher education, as the study shows they are.
“Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth” indicates that there are approximately 300,000 foster youth between the ages of 18 and 25. That includes those who have aged out of the child welfare system and those in a select few states where they remain wards of the system until age 21. “About 150,000 of these foster youth have graduated from high school and are college qualified,” according to the report. “Of these college-qualified foster youth about 30,000” — about one in five — “are attending postsecondary education.”
The rate at which college-qualified foster youth attend postsecondary education is substantially below the rate at which their peers attend (60 percent), according to Thomas R. Wolanin, the author of the report. “If foster youth completed high school and attended postsecondary education at the same rate as their peers, nearly 100,000 additional foster youth in the 18- to 25-year-old age group would be attending higher education,” he reports. “This is the size of the gap in opportunity for higher education between foster youth and their peers, and it is the magnitude of the policy problem to equalize opportunities for foster youth.”
The report says policy makers should make “sustained, intensive and comprehensive” independent living programs available to all foster youth as early as age 14 up to age 24. It also indicates that the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services should be required to carry out its legislative mandates (it is already legally bound to do this, but some foster care experts say it has been lax) to systematically evaluate independent living programs and encourage adoption of the best practices, and to collect timely and accurate data about the educational attainment of foster youth and use that data as a measure of accountability for the “well being” of foster youth.
Independent living programs supported by the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program serve only about half of the eligible foster youth, according to the report, and most foster youth do not receive a sufficiently practical, sustained, and comprehensive independent living skills program.Therefore, many do not end up having the skills necessary for success in higher education.
John, for one, says that the independent living courses she participated in were “boring,” so she stopped going early on. “I would have liked someone to have assessed where I was developmentally,” she says. “These courses have to be zoned in to each individual person.”
Linda Rodriguez, 23, who aged out of foster care in New York two years ago, says that she found her independent living coordinators to be “too rehearsed, as if they were reading from a book.” Rodriguez is currently attending Lehman College, which, like John Jay, is part of the City University of New York.
The report also recommends that states provide Medicaid coverage for foster youth up to age 24, especially to enable them to obtain any necessary mental health services.
The mental health components of the institute’s recommendations are especially important to John and Rodriguez.
John says she sees several foster youth with mental issues on a regular basis that need help, but can’t afford it. “Mental illness doesn’t go away at age 21,” she says, recalling her own ordeal with depression.
“A lot of foster youth definitely need therapy,” agrees Rodriguez. “At age 21, many of us are just starting to grow because of what happened to us in the past.”
Robin Nixon, director of the National Foster Care Coalition, generally supports the institute’s policy recommendations – noting that higher education for foster youth has been a widely ignored issue – but also suggests that incremental changes would be more likely to win over policy makers.
“I’d prefer to work toward a set of comprehensive universal services for kids up to age 21’,” says Nixon.
She notes that a vast majority of states do not have such services in place, so it would be a tougher sell to achieve funding for programs that would reach to age 24.
Rodriguez says that much improvement is needed for younger kids in the system, which would make extended services less necessary. “The system should be strengthened so kids can age out successfully at 21,” she says. “That’s the ideal, but it’s sad to see what happened just because there wasn’t enough support early on.”
Mark E. Courtney, director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children, argues that the recommendations in the report do not go far enough. “Extending independent living services and Medicaid through 24 would be an improvement over current policy, but what really needs to happen is that young people need to be able to remain in care through at least 21 instead of being discharged at 18 or shortly thereafter,” he says. “The state needs to retain all responsibilities of parenthood, not just a select few.
“In the absence of court oversight of their care and funding for room, board, and supportive social services, many foster youth will end up homeless or in very unstable circumstances and will therefore not be able to succeed in higher education,” adds Courtney.
Now a program director at Voices for Youth, a program that supports and cares for foster youth, John says the recommendations in the report are important steps — ones that few people were talking about when she aged out and ultimately tried to commit suicide. “It’s important for higher education to understand the kinds of issues foster youth face,” she says. “A collaboration between players in the child welfare system and colleges would definitely be useful.”
But her years of experience have left her skeptical. “This all looks nice on paper,” she says. “But what will really come to pass?”