New Report Calls for Policy Changes to Equalize Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth
- Increase educational expectations
- Extend eligibility for independent living programs
- Increase access to mental health care services
Washington, D.C., Dec. 15, 2005—Foster youth are among America’s most disadvantaged in terms of opportunities for higher education, and targeted strategies are required to increase their college-going, according to a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The report, “Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth: A Primer for Policymakers,” recognizes that the root of the unique barriers that foster youth face is their common traumatic experience: the neglect or abuse that brought them to the attention of public authorities and subsequent removal from their family. The report recommends several key areas where changes in policy could alleviate obstacles such as low educational expectations; frequent disruptions and changes in school placements; underdeveloped independent living skills; and lack of access to mental health care and treatment.
Each year there are some 800,000 youth served by the foster care system, and the report estimates that at any time, there are approximately 300,000 youth in foster care between the ages of 18 and 25, prime college-going years. About 150,000 of these foster youth are college qualified, having graduated from high school, and of these college-qualified foster youth only about 30,000 are attending postsecondary education.
According to this 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. “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 we face to equalize opportunities for foster youth,” said Tom Wolanin, Senior Associate at the Institute and author of the new report.
Wolanin identifies a number of factors that keep foster youth from pursuing higher education. In general, he contends that overworked, underpaid and insufficiently trained social workers; foster parents who turn over frequently and who also do not receive adequate training and support; and overburdened school counselors do not provide the adult mentoring and nurturing needed for foster youth to develop independence and maturity. In addition, foster youth more often develop mental illnesses and emotional fragility that are significant barriers to higher education opportunities.
Independent living programs, particularly those supported by the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, aim to help foster youth generally between the ages of 16 and 21 to make the transition to self-sufficiency. However, these programs only serve about half of the eligible foster youth.
The report makes the following key recommendations to address some of these barriers.
- Achieving high levels of educational attainment for all foster youth should be embedded in the professional responsibilities of all those who care for and serve foster youth.
- Sustained, intensive, and comprehensive independent living programs should be available to all foster youth as early as age 14. Foster youth who age-out of foster care or spend at least one year in care after age 13, should be given adequate time to mature by extending their eligibility for support through independent living and other programs up to age 24.
- The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services should carry out its legislative mandates 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.
- States should be required to provide Medicaid coverage for foster youth up to age 24, especially to enable them to obtain any necessary mental health services.
- Whenever possible foster youth should remain in the same school even if their residential placement changes. When a change in school is necessary, it should be carried out with minimal disruption of the foster youth’s education, such as by making the change between school terms.
- Federal programs such as TRIO, GEAR-UP, and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) should be modified to more effectively reach foster youth and to better serve their unique needs.
“Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth” is one of a series of reports funded by the Ford Foundation that examine how and why specific groups are slipping through the cracks of American postsecondary educational opportunity.