At 21, Bill Cunningham should be considered a success story. Living nearly half of his life in a series of foster and group homes, he attended five different schools and struggled with behavioral problems. Statistically, he had almost no chance of earning a college degree or to rise above employment at the minimum wage.
He needed, he said, to "change my behaviors in order to move to a better place. At the age of 12, I moved to my first foster home. I like a foster home a lot better because you have more freedom than being in a group home in a hospital." By the time he had graduated high school, he decided to go to college so he could "get a better job than working minimum wage so I could have a better life for me and the family I want to have.
"In order to go to college, I realized I needed to work on my reading and spelling and other things I have difficulty with, such as understanding what I read. My junior year in high school I had great foster parents and they helped me reach my goal. That’s the reason why I got this far. Now I’m at [Austin Community College], I am comfortable being around people and I know my way around this campus. I have very good instructors teaching me what I need to know to keep a job and get ahead."
The automotive technology major was telling his story to a group of community college leaders and instructors interested in replicating his success and that of ACC's program for foster care alumni. The session, "A Tale of Three Cities: Three Community Colleges' Approach to Providing Campus-Based Services to Students from Foster Care," constituted part of the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention, in Philadelphia.
The participants highlighted a unique set of challenges for a group of students that often gets overlooked among the many at-risk subgroups that tend to be disproportionately represented at community colleges. Youth in foster care have typically been removed from their birth parents and often live from foster home to foster home, navigating a maze of state agencies in disruptive, unpredictable environments.
According to John Emerson, director of education at the nonprofit foster care improvement organization Casey Family Programs, the leader of the discussion on Sunday, the high school graduation rate of such students is under 50 percent, while 30 percent are in special-ed programs of some sort. A majority -- 65 percent -- change schools seven or more times before finishing the 12th grade. The statistics get grimmer as students go farther down the education pipeline: under 10 percent of youth who grew up in foster care enroll in college. For two- and four-year colleges, the completion rate is about 2 percent.
Several of those who spoke noted that a central issue for youths raised in a foster environment is a reluctance to place trust in others; at the same time, many have never had particularly high expectations set for them. "I just needed to hear somebody tell me I could do it. I had never heard that before," said a college student quoted in the presentation. That attitude, plus the "survival mode" of teenagers who have recently emancipated themselves legally from their foster parents, often means a lack of guidance and resources to pursue the longer-term goal of earning a college degree.
An oft-noted scarcity of resources plagues community colleges, too, which often don't have coordinated efforts in place to reach out to foster care alumni. Emerson noted a number of policies that institutions could adopt, or take advantage of, to encourage such students to make the leap. The federal Education and Training Vouchers program, for instance, provides up to $5,000 per year for students out of foster care in all states pursuing postsecondary education. Seventeen or more states additionally offer tuition waivers or need-based grants for such students, Emerson added, while other states have Medicaid extension programs to provide health insurance to youths out of foster care.
What can community colleges do? As some programs are already demonstrating at places like ACC, the California Community Colleges System, the City College of San Francisco and Seattle Central Community College, they can work with existing organizations and agencies such as school districts, social advocacy groups and nonprofits. Emerson noted that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid specifically asks if applicants are orphans or wards of the state -- a status that colleges can pay attention to when targeting potential beneficiaries of outreach programs.
Austin's program offers personalized help; financial assistance for tuition, textbooks and housing; and access to specialized counseling. Officials at the college found that from fall 2006 to spring 2008, as the program was getting off the ground, there was a 24 percent increase in the enrollment of foster care alumni, with 40 percent needing remedial training. Another program, at City College of San Francisco, is used in the financial aid office itself, so that the process of applying for the education vouchers is seen as an extension of its existing mission.
Seattle Central's program, a more top-down effort that initially responded to community concern about foster alumni, received outside funding (unlike Austin) from Casey and other groups. "We have money and we’re very lucky for that, but it’s still hard for us," said Sarahfina Aldeane, a student there who spoke at the session, one of 38 in the program.