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Increasing Visibility of Foster Youth On Campus: Recognizing Low Cost Support Options

Student Success Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
December 10, 2018 Tara Strong

It seems that the foster youth population has been receiving increased attention during the past decade from college and university student support offices. I consider this a huge win!  Although services like Upward Bound, TRIO, and other federally funded initiatives are available for foster youth to take advantage of on campus, it is important to understand that the needs of foster youth on campus are unique and complex.

Foster youth in the U.S can be defined as children who are a part of the foster care system (Reid & Barth, 2000). The foster care system is a structure, designed to care for youth who must leave their nuclear/biological family until the parental conditions of the nuclear/ biological family improve. There are several complex reasons that foster youth must be removed from their nuclear/ biological home setting. Jonson-Reid & Barth’s (2000) study analyzed reasons for removal, and these reasons were defined as physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect (p. 498).

In 2004, over 70% of foster youth between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, who were polled, reported that they desired to go to college. 19% of those youth also desired to attend graduate school (Kirk & Day, 2011). There are several sources that suggest the transition out of the system and into “adulthood” is very hard for this population (Dworsky & Perez, 2009; Greenen & Powers, 2007). Some are calling the foster care system a pipeline to prison. America no longer has orphanages, but it does have transitional group homes, foster placements and adoption agencies within its social service system.

Foster youth are a part of the U.S college demographic make-up. Among the crowd of wide-eyed students, a population of youth with immense resilience, motivation and life experience exist. Colleges have the ability to cultivate success within foster youth attending college, and research shows that foster youth want to attend college. Lovitt and Emerson (2008) researched common themes among foster youth who have succeeded throughout college matriculation. This research serves as a valuable resource for foster youth and higher education administrators, alike.  This research included quotes and suggestions from eight successful college graduates who were emancipated from the foster youth system. As cited in Lovitt and Emerson (2008) “ ..there were over 500,000 foster youth in the United States of America in 2006” .. only about 3 percent of the foster youth population earns a college degree” (p.1).

Are we, as higher education professionals doing enough to support this vulnerable population? Are these students coming up in department meetings? Are tasks forces and think tanks being created to aid their transition onto campus appropriately? How would you rate your institution’s regular communication with the state regarding this population? Do we believe that the numbers are not high enough to substantiate the infrastructure needed to support foster youth in the United States?

It is time for colleges and universities to more carefully examine their practices and systems regarding how they are supporting foster youth. The news is filled with stories regarding the opioid epidemic in the United States of America, and the number of youth entering foster care is projected to rise. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to do better for these students. There are many ways to create programs that address the needs of foster youth entering college. A simple google search will reveal several scholar programs that offer wrap around support for foster youth on campus. I think that other states can look at the California Pathways program and assess how their state is serving foster youth in comparison to California.  If your college or university does not have the resources or staff to build a comprehensive program, consider implementing a “Foster Youth Liaison” on campus. The Foster Youth Liaison is an individual who acts as a point of contact for any student that self discloses on the common app. (or in person) their current or former foster youth status. In addition to regular responsibilities in their full-time position (sometimes a Financial Aid Advisor, Academic Advisor, or Success Coach) a Foster Youth Liaison is given additional training on foster youth specific information. This individual attends workshops through the state and stays relevant in foster youth policy, legislature and on/off campus resources. This connection alone could make or break the attrition rates among this population.

Tara Strong M.Ed. is a Health Educator at New England College and an Adjunct Psychology Faculty Member at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. Before completing her Master's degree Tara spent five years in Oakland, California helping to run foster youth specific initiatives as well as developed case management style advising curriculum for after school programs. During graduate school, Tara focused on the matriculation and support for marginalized populations at institutions of higher education.


Dworsky, A. & Pérez, A. (2010). Helping former foster youth graduate from college through campus support programs. Children and Youth Services Review, 32, 255-263.

Greenen, S. & Powers, L. E. (2007). “Tomorrow is another problem” The experiences of youth in foster care during their transition into adulthood. Children and Youth Services Review, 29, 1085-1101.

Jonson-Reid, M. & Barth, R. P. (2000). From placement to prison: The path to adolescent incarceration from child welfare supervised foster or group care. Children and Youth Services Review, 22 (7), 493-516.

Kirk, R. & Day, A. (2011). Increasing college access for youth aging out of foster care: Evaluation of a summer camp program for foster youth transitioning from high school to college. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1173-1180.

Lovitt, T. & Emerson, J. (2008). Foster youth who have succeeded in higher education: Common themes. Information Brief: Addressing Trends and Developments in Secondary Education and Transition, 7 (1), 1-5.