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Five students sit outside on a college campus on their laptops and phones.

Students with foster care experience face unique barriers while in college, making them less likely to graduate compared to their peers.

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Youth with experience in the foster care system face a variety of challenges in college access and degree completion. Even compared to their first-generation, low-income peers, former foster students are less likely to earn a degree in six years.

A new report from the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty analyzed degree completion outcomes from students with foster care history in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, comparing their experiences and outcomes to first-generation, low-income college students.

The report found demographic factors like age and gender impacted a former foster youth’s degree completion probability, along with outside life responsibilities like parenthood or work. However, campus programs and financial aid for former foster youth can help close the completion gap, the research found.

Understanding foster youth experiences: Most foster care students attend a two-year college (75 percent), and of those who attend a four-year college (25 percent), only 14.8 percent attend a selective four-year college, 2.8 percentage points less than their low-income, first-gen peers.

Fewer than half of foster youth persist through their first year of college, compared to around 75 percent of first-gen, low-income learners.

Researchers identified three postenrollment factors that create barriers to success for former foster youth in higher education:

  • Needing to work full-time (60.8 percent of students work at least 35 hours per week)
  • Being a parent (62.7 percent are parents)
  • Facing economic hardships (83.3 percent of students face at least one economic hardship; 34.7 percent face five to six hardships)

Each factor independently decreases the likelihood that a student will earn a college degree.

Institutional factors, additionally, played a role in the success of students with foster care experience. A college or university that invested heavily in academic support, student services and instruction was more likely to see degree completion among foster care youth. Institutions with a higher population of Pell Grant recipients also were more likely to have former foster youth complete degrees. 

Changing the landscape: Colleges can promote success factors among former foster care students in four ways.

  • Encourage FAFSA completion. Students can apply for federal student aid through the FAFSA and get connected to potential need-based funding, which can offset financial hardship outside of the classroom.
  • Modify admissions applications. Because some students won’t complete a FAFSA, colleges should add two questions to their admissions applications to identify students with foster care experience. The first question should ask about an applicant’s history of foster care involvement, and the second should ask the age at which the applicant was last in foster care.
  • Implement a campus-based program. Support programs for former foster youth, like Western Michigan University’s Seita Scholars or the University of California’s Guardian Scholars, can help with postenrollment challenges, including financial concerns, housing issues and a lack of adult guidance. Campus-based programs are most needed at two-year institutions.
  • Invest in research. More studies are needed to understand what kinds of financial support and on-campus programs are most effective, and the levels of support needed, to help former foster youth succeed.

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