A new report on educational achievement for foster youth found that to help them succeed in college, targeted supports need to start years before they walk on campus.
The report, Pipeline to Success, focused specifically on the 21,186 foster youth in California’s 115 community colleges and the supports they needed to transition from high school to a successful post-secondary education.
Much of the report focuses on the K-12 school years with recommendations that include preventing school changes for foster youth while in high school, addressing the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion foster youth face, and building in support around the college application process.
Just over half of foster youth graduate high school in four years, while 83 percent of their non-foster peers do, according to the report. Frequent school changes, which are common during foster care placement changes, are correlated with lower academic outcomes. Foster youth miss school more often and are suspended and expelled at a rate three times that of their peers, and the lost classroom learning time negatively impacts their trajectory.
The report also suggests that more financial resources and academic guidance are needed to help foster youth make the transition from high school to college life.
One former foster youth told The Chronicle of Social Change that the report resonated with her experience.
“When I graduated [high school], I went straight into college, and I didn’t have anybody to tell me where I needed to go, what I needed to do,” said Christina Torrez, a 23-year-old Bakersfield College student who was in and out of foster care since she was 6.
“It’s different when you’re in college because they consider you as an adult,” Torrez said, explaining why foster youth often need more support than their peers when starting higher education. “It’s like here you’re an adult so you have to learn to do that by yourself.”
These and other challenges lead to below-average outcomes for foster youth in community college. And the problems can begin before they even arrive on campus — despite applying to community colleges at a higher rate than their non-foster peers, only half of those who apply end up actually enrolling.
Experts refer to this phenomenon as “summer melt,” and attribute it to a lack of financial and academic resources during that transitional period before college. This can mean foster youth struggling with basic needs like housing or the cost of buying textbooks and registering for classes.
“The summer between high school and college is a crucial transition point and yet responsibility for ensuring foster youth have support during this period is currently not part of either the high school or college system mandate,” the report reads. “This is a gap that needs to be addressed.”
Youth who do end up enrolling in community colleges earn on average fewer credits and a 25 percent lower GPA during that first year than their non-foster peers, the report found. This often puts financial aid into jeopardy, as many grant programs have minimum credit and GPA requirements. Losing financial aid can also mean losing housing, and without the financial safety net many students enjoy during college, this can spell the end of the academic career for foster youth.
The report suggests having high schools and community colleges coordinate support for foster youth during this transition to make sure more of them make it to the first day of school. It also calls for more data sharing across systems so community colleges can better identify foster youth and connect them with supports to help them make the transition successfully.
On the front end, the authors recommend that school districts should re-examine policies around suspension and expulsions and prioritize trauma-informed trainings for teachers and staff to address the disproportionate use of these punishments with foster youth.
Developing best practices around helping youth stay in their school of origin during placement changes is also key, according to the report. Research shows that students lose an estimated four months of learning each time they change schools.
Torrez said she attended five different high schools and lost a lot of credits in the process of bouncing between programs with disparate curricula.
“It affected me really bad, because my senior year I had to work my butt off like crazy in order to graduate on time,” she said.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires school districts and child welfare agencies to develop a plan and cost sharing agreement to help kids stay in their same school after a placement change, but reporting by The Chronicle of Social Change has found that many states have struggled with implementing this.
Pipeline to Success also analyzed the existing supports and financial resources available to foster youth at community colleges, like Pell Grants and fee waivers as well as on-campus support programs like NextUp, a state-funded program at community colleges that provides tutoring and academic guidance, mentorship and financial assistance for things like books, childcare and transportation. The research indicates that these services, to varying degrees, were correlated with an increase in GPA and credits earned during a student’s first year.
“I think one of the most exciting things about this report is that it was able to tease out the impact of the supports that are available,” said Debbie Raucher, a project director with John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), one of the organizations that helped produce the report.
“It’s not just anecdotal anymore,” Raucher said. “This actually makes a difference in real outcomes.”