Henry Pennerman began attending California State University at San Marcos in 2003. Having spent part of his youth in foster care, he said there were no programs available for students like himself, fresh out of the foster system and thrust into yet another new environment.
“There needed to be a sense of community,” he says. “There’s no way to identify people who have had similar experiences -- it can be a bit frustrating when you’re having challenges that are specific to you and your situation, and there’s no one to have any kind of cathartic relief with.”
In 2006, Pennerman, still an undergraduate, joined a fledgling effort to build that missing community. He was asked to be on a committee to create what is now the university’s ACE Scholars Services program, which supports foster youth through the college application and admissions processes and -- if they end up at CSU-San Marcos -- provides them with mentoring and career development opportunities.
Pennerman worked with Jim Mickelson, now director of ACE Scholars, and other staff members to frame the program. When it began in 2007, Pennerman acted as a liaison between the program and former foster youth on campus, many of whom didn’t know the program existed.
Now, about 50 students participate in ACE Scholars, Mickelson said. CSU-San Marcos enrolls 10,435 students, and Mickelson said -- based on his knowledge of other universities with similar programs -- that the university has the highest number of former foster youth per capita than any other university in the nation.
A 2004 state law encouraged California colleges to disseminate information to foster-care agencies about admissions and financial aid, as well as to explore methods of helping former foster youth transition to four-year colleges -- without giving them funding to do so.
“Campuses dealt with this differently, and this campus really embraced this challenge,” says Eloise Stiglitz, vice president of student affairs at CSU-San Marcos.
She joined the university in 2010. Before then, she worked in student affairs at San José State University, which began its program for former foster youth about the same time that CSU-San Marcos did, she says.
San Jose State conducted outreach with social workers, but CSU-San Marcos works with high schools, which is a more effective form of outreach, since students begin thinking about college at school, not with social workers, she said.
Mickelson said only about half of foster youth nationwide obtain a high school degree. Of those graduates, only about 3 to 5 percent attend college, and about half of the students who make it to college will finish a four-year degree. As of September 2011, 400,540 youth were in foster care nationwide, Mickelson said.
But for the last four years, the ACE Scholars program has had an 88 percent retention rate from year to year -- higher than the university’s overall retention rate of 80 percent, he said.
Mickelson operates the program with one other counselor, and says he’ll start looking to fill a vacant staff position in a few months. The program must fund its staff positions -- besides Mickelson's, which is funded by the university -- along with textbooks and other resources for students, he says. "A big part of my responsibility is fund-raising."
Mickelson says the ACE Scholars program is unique because of its memorandums of understanding with two counties -- San Diego and Riverside -- that ensure that young people emerging from foster care in those two counties who meet the university’s minimum standards for admission will automatically be admitted.
The university also guarantees admission to graduates of San Pasqual Academy, a nearby residential high school for foster youth.
He describes it as a carrot-and-stick initiative: “If you will do your college prep courses and get your high school degree, we’re going to take this barrier away and give you a shot at college,” he says. “I want to give them all a shot at college.”
“We put a lot of energy into the relationships with the high schools,” Stiglitz says. “The reason why our program does have so many students and why we’re so special is the amount of energy we put into that outreach.”
Anne Jefferson, a consultant for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, a national group which works to ease the transition from foster care to adulthood, says that foster children -- without a consistent adult presence or financial or emotional support -- are less likely to see college as an option.
“If the young person is not going to get into a permanent family situation, then you need to begin to look at relationships with people who will help them stay focused on succeeding in education,” she says, adding that CSU-San Marcos’ memorandums of understanding “sound like a really good step in moving forward with that.”
The program offers a work scholarship program for enrolled students who want to get a part-time job. Mickelson says he talks with students about their career goals and then matches them with a relevant university department to interview them for a position. The ACE Scholars program pays students’ salaries.
He says the departments agree to monitor and encourage the student employees and report any problems back to him. “I’ve got another set of eyes on the student,” he says. “We have found this to be very successful. It gets students connected to the campus.”
But the program does not hold regular meetings for its students beyond an annual dinner and occasional lunches with speakers.
“That’s a double-edged sword that I’m still struggling with,” Mickelson says, adding that while he wants the program participants to use each other as support, he also wants to get them integrated into campus and interacting with students from different backgrounds.
Pennerman graduated in 2008, but is still on the campus studying for a master's in sociology and working full-time as an information technology consultant at the university. He worked as a graduate intern with the program for a few years, conducting outreach with high schools. He isn’t a graduate intern anymore, but he still remains involved with the program by speaking at events and spreading word about the program to other former foster youth on campus.