For many college-aged adults, the challenge when it comes to post-secondary educational attainment is not getting into college, but rather, persisting to degree completion (Griffith, 2008). Reduced academic preparation, limited financial resources, and, often, a lack of family and peer support mean that low income, first generation college students are less likely to persist to degree completion, especially during the first year compared with their peers whose parents attended college (Engle, 2007).
A unique subset of this at-risk student population is foster care alumni.
Post-secondary institutions typically respond to the needs of foster care alumni by connecting them to programs that traditionally have been used to support at-risk students (Wolanin, 2005). Programs designed for first-generation and or low-income students may not adequately support foster care alumni (Dworsky & Perez, 2010). A 2012 study found that foster care alumni enrolled in four-year institutions are more likely to drop out than other low-income, first generation students (Day, Riebschleger, Dworsky, Damashek, & Fogarty, 2012). Therefore, understanding the specialized needs of foster care alumni can be used to better inform administrators about how to support this population once enrolled in college.
Although higher education can serve as an equalizer for foster care alumni by increasing income and creating new opportunities, only a small minority of this population completes their education (Salazar, 2011). Once these individuals enter college, they have a lower rate of graduation than their peers, often related to a combination of barriers ranging from lack of support to financial need (Courtney, Dworksy, Lee, & Rapp, 2010; Salazar, 2011). Research on the factors that help these individuals succeed in higher education is limited.
It is important to examine the unique experiences of foster care alumni within the university and what support is necessary to increase the population’s persistence to graduation. Foster care alumni face many obstacles throughout their transition from care to Independent living (Arnett, 2004; Courtney & Heuring, 2005). These challenges are often exacerbated when youth in this population begin college coursework (Hernandez & Naccarato, 2010).
The purpose of this research study is to examine contributing factors that have assisted foster care alumni success once enrolled in post-secondary institutions. Researchers have only begun to investigate why so few foster care alumni attend post-secondary education and why even fewer earn a degree (Merdinger, et al., 2005).
A significant gap exists between post-secondary educational attainment for foster care alumni compared to their non-foster peers. Youth who had been in foster care were less likely to attend college than their peers (Brandford & English, 2004; Wolamin, 2005; Courtney, Dworsky, Cusick, Havlicek, Perez, & Keller, 2007), and furthermore, foster care alumni who do attend college are less likely than their peers to earn a degree (Day, Dworsky, Fogarty, & Damashek, 2011; Courtney et al., 2010; Davis, 2006). The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, a longitudinal study that followed over 700 17- and 18-year olds from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois as they transitioned out of foster care, found that less than one third had completed at least one year of college by age 23 or 24 compared to 53 percent of a nationally representative sample of 23 and 24-year-old peers (Courtney et al., 2010).
Even if foster youth graduate from high school, they may not be academically prepared for post-secondary education. Research has shown that foster youth are less likely that their peers to take college preparatory courses in high school even when the two groups have similar test scores and grades (Sheehy et al., 2001).
Estimates show that as few as 10% of foster care alumni enroll in college (Wolanin, 2005) and as little as four percent of that group earn a bachelor’s degree (Nixon & Jones, 2007). The minority of resilient foster care alumni who enter college become least likely to be retained from their first to second year and or to drop out after their second year when compared to other low income, first generation students (Day, Dworsky, Fogarty, & Damashek, 2011).
Youth from foster care represent one of the most academically vulnerable populations in the country (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2004). The abuse and neglect faced prior to entering care, and traumas associated with being removed from loved ones, make them 30-80% more likely to experience a variety of developmental problems, including learning disabilities, behavioral or mental health disorders (Atkinson, 2008; Mersky & Janczewski, 2013).
There is a research gap on the experiences of foster care alumni once they are enrolled in institutions of higher education. While the transition barriers of these students have been identified, little attention has been paid to experiences once they are part of a campus community (Hallett & Westland, 2015). Researching the ways students connect to others is needed to understand how to retain and meet the needs of foster care alumni (Kirk et al., 2013).
In 2005, Merdinger and colleagues completed a landmark study to map the experiences of 216 college-enrolled foster care alumni (Merdinger et al., 2005). Known as the “Pathways to College” study, this formative work provided an attempt to better understand factors of success among college-enrolled foster care alumni. The study found several commonalities in the population that were characteristic of the research on resiliency in at-risk youth, including importance of external influences such as social support and connections with the community (Merdinger et al., 2005).
When foster care alumni who have dropped out of college are asked about their reasons for withdrawing, they often cite needing work, child care responsibilities and falling behind in school (Courntey et al., 2010; Merdinger et al., 2005). Students who have spent time in foster care may benefit from on-campus supports such as a family resource center or tutoring (Merdinger et al., 2005) as well as assistance applying for financial aid to assist with meeting their personal needs in order to retain them to college.
A growing number of post-secondary institutions across the country have begun to develop programs specifically targeted at supporting foster care alumni. While the structure of campus support services differs based on the individual institution, commonalities have been identified. These include access to financial aid and scholarships, opportunities for yearlong housing, and academic, personal, and social supports (Dworsky & Perez, 2009). Administrators of these programs also identify best practices which include accessibility, educational and emotional support, financial aid assistance, and student advocacy. In their work with the population, campus administrators report the obstacles in working with foster care alumni to include academic under-preparation, difficulty identifying foster care alumni once enrolled in the university, housing, mental health issues, program assessment, and program sustainability (Watt, Norton, & Jones, 2013).
Salazar (2011) believes there is a need for more supportive mental health services and tangible support for foster care alumni in college through these services as it relates to commitment. Salazar (2011) measured institutional commitment as a factor of academic retention in foster care alumni. The study found that a student’s satisfaction with his or her college was linked to retention rates, such that individuals who exhibited institutional commitment, or reported high satisfaction with their college, were significantly less likely to disengage (Salazar, 2011).
Academic advisors and faculty members may be able to help aid institutional commitment by providing both academic and social support to students who have been in foster care (McGillin, 2003). Access to faculty and community mentors has been shown to increase student persistence (Haussmann, Schofield, & Woods, 2007). Relationships with advisors or professors may be especially important for new students while they are trying to adjust to campus life (McGillin, 2003).
Social involvement is another factor related to academic retention for traditional student populations, as well as to academic retention specifically for foster youth (Salazar, 2011). Salazar’s research indicates that students who demonstrated social involvement in the form of connectedness with their college and participated in social events had a significantly lower rate of disengagement than their peers (Salazar, 2011). Students who have populated in foster care may be less likely than their peers to have informal networks of social support to which they can turn to when they are impacted by stress or life problems (Mendes & Badal, 2006).
Many studies also point to participation in school and community activities as an important external factor, helping to cultivate feelings of belonging in youth and providing opportunities for social support. In the Pathways study, 66 percent of students reported participating in extracurricular activities and 17 percent felt it was one of the most important factors in their decision to go to college (Merdinger et al., 2005). Youth in foster care who participate in extracurricular activities report feeling more connected to school and to their peers, with many youth citing their involvement as an important sanctuary from negative experiences in their home (Day et al., 2012; Lovitt & Emerson, 2008). Hass & Graydon (2009) found among a sample of college-enrolled foster care alumni a strong commitment to help others as well as strong involvement in both school and community activities. Students who do not participate in extracurricular activities report feeling their lack of involvement was a detriment to their academic goals (Lovitt & Emerson, 2008).
In a population characterized by instability in familial and societal relationships, social supports may be limited. Research suggests that although 80% of foster youth sampled reported having access to one type of support, only 39.8% reported having access to emotional and informational, tangible, affectionate supports and positive social interaction (Salazar, Keller & Courtney, 2011). Findings from a study of predicators of academic success among foster care alumni supported the need for multiple types of support in college, particularly the need for tangible supports (Salazar, 2011). The findings of Salazar (2011) show the importance of support as a success factor for foster care alumni during college, particularly tangible supports, such as academic support and guidance, mental health supports, and institutional financial support.
This study aims to add to the literature on the topic of foster care alumni attending post-secondary institutions. The goal is to highlight how involvement and post-secondary support programs influence the collegiate experiences of foster alumni along with its potential impact on future policy and programs. Research on this topic benefits foster care alumni by providing college administrators with information on the resources needed to assist this population as they work to find success as responsible, global citizens.
Foster care alumni are at a much higher risk of dropping out than their peers (Hines et al., 2005). Thus, it can be proposed, that it is the responsibility of higher education professionals to develop programs aimed at supporting their academic, career and personal goals. Programs targeting foster care alumni may also benefit other at-risk populations on campus, especially their peers from low-income areas who may also be academic underprepared for college coursework. By encouraging their persistence to graduation, institutions may see overall gains in retention rates.
Unlike other student groups, which include low income, racial and ethnic minorities, and students with disabilities, foster care alumni have not been successful in affirming their specific needs to higher education administrators to ensure a “concentrated and effective effort” is made to ensure their access to and success in higher education (Wolanin, 2005, p. v). Foster care alumni may also fail to graduate because student services personnel at most post-secondary institutions are neither familiar with nor prepared to address their unique needs (Dworsky & Perez, 2009). Consistent with this explanation, students in the Merdinger et al. (2005) study reported not being able or not knowing how to obtain student services. Student service offices encapsulate a variety of resources which aim to connect students to campus and each other.
Students feel a strong sense of belonging and perform better academically when they have frequent interactions with other students with similar backgrounds and experiences (Ostrove & Long, 2007). Colleges and universities that actively recruit students who are or were in foster care and provide consistent opportunities for these students to interact may increase their odds of persisting until they graduate (Fletcher & Tienda, 2008). When matched with campus mentors, foster care alumni report less perceived stress, fewer symptoms of depression and a greater satisfaction with life (Munson & McMillen, 2009). Academic advisors, faculty and other campus advocates can play an important role in targeting this unique population and encouraging their participation in appropriate campus and community resources designed to encourage their success (Bonnel, 2007).
Extracurricular activities can be influential factors in a young adult’s development of resilience (Drapeau et al., 2007). According to a study by Merdinger, Hines, Osterling, and Wyatt (2005), the majority (65%) of foster care alumni enrolled in a university who were interviewed had participated in an extracurricular activity while in school. Social support has been linked with increasing students’ self-confidence and sense of purpose (Kirk & Day, 2011), and college-enrolled foster care alumni indicate social support as a key contributing factor to their academic success (Hass & Graydon, 2009; Lovitt & Emerson, 2008; Rios & Nevin, 2009).
Research has linked social support with increasing self-confidence, sense of purpose, and resilience among at-risk student populations, suggesting growth in one area can nurture and promote growth in the other (Kirk & Day, 2011; Jones, 2012; Daining & DePanfilis, 2007; Hass & Graydon, 2009). Hass and Graydon (2009) called these relationships, turnaround people, who not only provided students emotional and social support, but who helped youth understand their own strengths and abilities. Such relationships may be key in creating a the social and emotional support that facilitates a foster care alumni’s personal growth and helps them succeed.
The importance of research on foster care alumni success becomes evident when observing foster youth outcomes. Foster youth face long-term challenges unequalled to their peers, including instability of housing, heightened risk of homelessness and arrest, higher risk of mental health issues, lower incomes and rates of employment, inadequate life skills in adulthood, and barriers to obtaining education, especially higher education (Courtney et al., 2010; Cusick, Havlicek, & Courtney, 2012; Sullivan, Jones, & Mathiesen, 2010). Engagement in higher education has been shown to mitigate many of these negative outcomes in both the general population and the foster youth population (Salazar, 2011).