Nina Williams doesn’t even remember when she entered the foster care system, and at the age of 18 she says she has little interest in learning exactly what put her there. Now a student at Western Michigan University, Williams has other concerns, like student loans and textbook costs.
When Williams came to WMU last year -- a university in Kalamazoo, Mich. with about 24,000 students -- she says she felt like an outcast. One of just seven students on campus who grew up in foster homes, Williams formed friendships that were built in part on mutual frustrations.
“We like didn’t have a set parent to help us get money, and we couldn’t get loans because we didn’t have co-signers,” Williams recalls.
The cards are clearly stacked against children of foster care, many of whom have suffered abuse and about 90 percent of whom never even seek postsecondary education, according to a 2006 report  released by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The sobering statistics, however, have prompted remarkably few universities to cater specifically to the high risk population of students who "age out" of foster care. But officials at Western Michigan say they want to be a leader among those few universities that are taking notice.
“These students will have a place called home, and it will be Western Michigan University,” said John Dunn, who was named the university’s president just under a year ago.
There are more than 800,000 children in the U.S. foster care system in a given year, and about 500 leave the system in Michigan annually.
Discussing the university’s new scholarship program for students who come out of foster care, a toothy grin crosses Dunn’s bearded face. The program will cover full tuition -- $6,570 – for about 40 students starting next year.
While students will still have to cover room, board and textbooks, they will qualify for state and federal aid that should position them to graduate debt free, according to WMU officials.
The John Seita Scholarships are named for a three-time WMU alumnus who was pulled from an abusive home and then moved through 15 different foster homes during his childhood. Seita is a rare success story from the foster care system. Now an associate professor in Michigan State University’s school of social work, Seita recalls his first failed foray into higher education. As a student at Olivet College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, Seita was fresh out of an orphanage and prone to “all the disastrous things that happen to people that don’t have a support structure.”
“I would have to sneak around the dorm rooms [during holiday breaks] and steal food and things like that,” he recalls.” So that was kind of a lonely, frightening experience.”
Seita’s story of hiding from janitorial crews during Spring Break – a necessity if he hoped to stay on the closed campus undetected – have made year-round residential housing for Seita scholars one of the hallmarks of Western Michigan’s program.
With the exception of transfer students, who are traditionally older, Seita scholars will share a common residence hall.
Yvonne Unrau, an associate professor of social work and an organizer of the new program, worked with a group of students from foster care – including Williams – to shape an experience designed to meet the population’s unique needs. The result has been a balancing act, giving the students a common support structure -- shared housing and some common classes – without isolating them completely from the campus culture.
One of the main barriers the program faces, however, can’t be addressed with a tuition stipend or creative roommate arrangements. Building trust – something children from foster homes often resist -- is an ongoing struggle.
“They’re not going to be appreciative,” Unrau said. “They’re not going to say thank you. They’re going to say 'Is this for real? Can I trust this person?'”
Ryan Davis, who wrote the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators report  on foster children, notes that a crucial component of any campus program aimed at such students is the strong and continual presence of support staff.
“There hasn’t been much research that documents why they’re unsuccessful in terms of data, but those that are familiar with the demographic know they need a support system,” Davis said. “They need a champion on campus.”
Without additional resources, Davis’ report shows just how skewed the success rate is for students with foster care backgrounds. Of students who entered higher education in 1996, 56 percent of non-foster care students earned a degree or certificate in six years, the report found. In contrast, just 26 percent of those with a foster care history graduated in the same time.
Officials at Western Michigan, where students’ average incoming grade point average is 3.26, say they will not lower academic standards to admit Seita scholars. The university has, however, works with nearby Kalamazoo Community College to help prepare academically unqualified students for university-level work.
There are working models  that suggest WMU is on the right path. A similar program is in place on several campuses throughout California, where the Guardian Scholars Program is now active at 17 colleges and universities. The program, which began at California State University at Fullerton, gives students up to $6,000 a year for five years on campuses where a designated advisor serves as a liaison to Guardian Scholars.
The Guardian Scholars program has served 385 students, and now has a 70 percent graduation and retention rate, according to organizers. Its success has piqued the interest of other states that have adopted Guardian Scholars programs, including New York, Colorado and Indiana. Georgia will launch a similar program in the fall.
In Michigan, the population of students potentially served by WMU’s program is significant, according to Dunn. There are more than 500 people each year who age out of the system in Michigan, and Dunn says it’s just a matter of good public policy to educate them and put them on the path to higher paying jobs – instead of fates like homeless or prison.
“If you look at the return on investment on this thing,” he said, “it’s a slam dunk.”