Unleashing College Success for Youth from Foster Care, Nationwide Advances

JEAn interview with John Emerson, who leads Casey Family Program’s postsecondary education and training for youth from foster care.

John Emerson is the Postsecondary Education Advisor for Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based national operating foundation that has served children, youth, and families  in the child welfare system since 1966. Emerson currently oversees postsecondary education and training practice and policy advocacy nationwide for young adults who experienced foster care. He also directs the Casey Family Scholars Program, which provides over 200 scholarships and support services to students from all fifty states and Puerto Rico.

With recent legislation in Arizona and Florida allocating more funds for foster youth to pursue higher education, The Chronicle of Social Change wanted to speak with Emerson to get a national perspective on practice and policy advances. We asked Emerson about what’s going on in his state of Washington, but also which states are leading postsecondary educational reform for foster youth.

Chronicle of Social Change (CSC): Which states are currently demonstrating a great level of commitment to higher education success for youth coming from foster care?

John Emerson (JE): There is growing policy and practice advocacy to address the dismal rates of college engagement and success for students coming from foster care. We have identified exciting activity in this area in over half the states. Seven states, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington, have been especially active in their attention to college support programs that target students from foster care. They have all formed some type of higher education and child welfare collaboration to improve postsecondary outcomes for these students.  Although each of these states have taken on this system’s work in different ways, they all understand that higher education and child welfare need to work closely together to improve postsecondary education outcomes for young adults coming from foster care experiences.

California has been engaged in this work since 1998 when the first Guardian Scholars program was established at California State University, Fullerton. The Orangewood Children’s Foundation and the Stuart Foundation have been important leaders in spreading the Guardian Scholars model throughout the state and even nationally. They hold conferences that bring together college and child welfare professionals, community organizations, foundations, policy makers and advocates to share effective practice information and identify strategies for working collaboratively. This has resulted in the proliferation of foster care liaisons in most colleges. Through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office’s FYSI program (Foster Youth Success Initiative) all 110 community and technical colleges have a designated foster youth liaison. Also, the passage of several state policies that support college students and important advocacy from community college, university and child welfare leadership continues to advance this work in California.

Washington, Michigan, Texas, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina all have undertaken important systems approaches to address the low retention and graduation rates for their college youth from foster care. These states all have some type of statewide child welfare and higher education collaborative that aims to establish an effective support model throughout their higher education system.

Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina all have adopted the “Reach” designation for their statewide collaborations. The ‘Reach’ moniker can be used by other states who engage in statewide collaborative efforts. Although each state has undertaken this work in their own way, they all prioritize ongoing collaboration between higher education, child welfare, community organizations, policymakers and state leadership. They commonly have a website that provides stakeholders with information and access to resources, hold annual convenings and share promising practice strategies. Providing listings of all state college programs and their liaisons is helpful, especially to colleges new to this work.

The Fostering Success Michigan initiative has made important advances in establishing a statewide focus on improving postsecondary education outcomes for students. With a grant from the Kresge Foundation, Fostering Success Michigan has been established to spread Western Michigan University’s exemplary Foster Youth and Higher Education Initiative throughout the state. Their new website is one of the best I have seen as it provides information and resources to both students and professionals. They are now developing a comprehensive college coaching guide that will be offered to all colleges. They held their second statewide convening this year with over 150 people attending. The Michigan state legislature has also been supportive of this initiative.

Texas Reach has been going strong since 2009. Their annual conference has grown each year and attracts attendees (including students) from colleges throughout the state, independent living staff, policy makers and advocates. Attendees learn what’s working well at Texas colleges and are encouraged to take these new approaches statewide. Their Planning Coalition consists of representatives from independent living programs, higher education, community based organization and foundations. In response to a new state policy that requires colleges to assist young adults from foster care, they recently developed and disseminated the Securing Campus Housing & Other Supports for Youth Who Were in Foster Care. They have become a reliable and trusted leader in Texas.

At this year’s Ohio Reach state conference, Attorney General DeWine announced a $1 million state award to further develop and expand Ohio Reach’s work to improve college success for students from foster care. This was recognition of their efforts over the past five years to have effective support programs available in all Ohio colleges. Ohio Reach provides colleges and child welfare workers with information and resources that address collaborative support delivery. They also provide a listing of all campus liaisons and encourage networking. The next few years will be exciting as they expand services with this new state funding.

Virginia’s Great Expectations program is a system-wide effort to address the low success rates at community colleges. That initiative was started in 2008 by Dr. Glenn DuBois, Chancellor Virginia’s Community Colleges. Great Expectations helps Virginia’s foster youth complete high school, gain access to a community college education, graduate and transition successfully from the foster care system to living independently. Established in five community colleges, the program now serves students in 17 colleges and continues to grow.

The North Carolina Reach model was developed in partnership with Foster Care to Success, the nation’s largest nonprofit foster care scholarship provider and ETV (Educational and Training Voucher) administrator. It is a very student-focused program with an exceptional website that provides North Carolina students with financial aid information, online applications and an interactive directory of North Carolina State Universities and Community Colleges. NC Reach provides comprehensive student support, including mentors, care packages and internships. Expert packaging of college financial aid from state, federal and private sources is an important component of their model.

Foster Care to Success also administers many college scholarships for students from foster care, including our Casey Family Scholars Program. Their support system has proved highly effective. Our Casey scholars have retention and graduation rates well above those for college students in general.

Attending to the support needs of college students coming from foster care backgrounds is critically important. These college and state efforts are clearly showing that these young adults can succeed at the postsecondary level if they have access to caring adult advocates and a support network – just like all successful college students. Investing in these supports pays off!

CSC: How have tuition waivers grown?

JE: With the recent addition of Arizona and Oregon, 21 states now have implemented tuition waiver policies for their college students from foster care. Too often these independent students are burdened with large loan debt that impacts their post college well-being. Tuition waivers not only lessen the overall cost of college attendance, but send an important message that the pursuit of higher education is important and a viable option. I especially like the recently passed Arizona tuition waiver policy that calls for an outcome evaluation over the next five years. This is important because tracking enrollment, retention and graduation rates of waiver students will focus attention on the availability and importance of effective support services. We know that financial aid is important, but supporting students during their college years is essential. Tuition waiver programs that don’t attend to student support needs will not be successful.

CSC: In your state Washington, what is the Passport to College Promise Scholarship program?

JE: Washington’s Passport for Foster Youth Promise Program is having significant impacts on improving support services, financial aid and child welfare/higher education collaboration throughout the state.  After a five-year evaluation phase the Passport program was made permanent in 2012. The Washington State Institute of Public Policy found that Passport supported students had retention and completion outcomes similar to other (non-foster) students. This innovative policy consists of four components: pre-college preparation, a scholarship, incentive grants to colleges, and importantly, support services from designated college support staff. This policy is resulting in a statewide ‘wraparound’ service model. Passport is administered by the non-profit College Success Foundation which has a long history of promoting college access and success for underrepresented students.  They also administer the Governor’s Scholarship program that provides private annual funding for students to attend college. Targeted support services are an integral part of this innovative scholarship program.  Passport has brought child welfare and higher education leaders and staff together with community based organizations and are having measurable impacts on student retention and graduation rates.

CSC: Do you feel these seven states in which Child Welfare and Higher Education have collaborated to create and support these initiatives are the leaders in the country in terms of providing post-secondary education support to foster youth?

JE: Yes. This type of outcome-focused collaborative commitment to identifying effective support approaches for students from foster care is essential if we are to offer all young adults equal opportunities to engage successfully in higher education opportunities. Postsecondary education and training engagement and success is absolutely critical for these young adults.  Their overall well-being depends on taking succeeding in school at all levels. And, we now have clear evidence that given targeted supports from caring adults, these students can succeed in collage.

We are seeing increased collegial support between state leaders as they all are eager to share information on what’s working, as well as their challenges. This kind of information exchange will be important to support other states to engage in effective systems collaboration.

CSC: What created the impetus to start these programs?

JE: It’s an exciting combination of:

  • Advocacy by passionate individuals from higher education, child welfare, foundations, policymakers and advocates
  • Strong leadership from both higher education and child welfare
  • Increased awareness about these young adults failing to get to and through college
  • Research findings that clearly show the lack of postsecondary education and training engagement for these youth
  • Attention by policymakers at the federal and state levels, and
  • Increasing evidence that given adequate financially aid and support, students are succeeding in higher education.

In 2003 the federal Chafee Educational and Training Voucher (ETV) program came to every state. This provided a wake-up call for child welfare and higher education systems as postsecondary education and training success was too seldom attended to. Chafee ETVs caused lots of movement and required new higher education/child welfare communication and relationship building. Several important federal policies followed this legislation. This included the Fostering Connections Act, the College Cost Reduction Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The HEA for the first time now contains language about supporting students from foster care and those that are homeless. This is a significant policy development as the HEA is foundational to college funding and program compliance nationally. The upcoming reauthorization of the HEA offers further opportunities to strengthen its attention to college students coming from foster care. This issue now has the attention of influential higher education professional organizations such as NASPA, NASFAA, COE, AACC, NACADA, NSPA, IHEP, NCCEP and others. They have become important advocates for attending to the needs of these students.

In 2008, the ABA’s Legal Center for Foster Care and Education started publishing and disseminating information briefs and resources on postsecondary issues. Their national outreach and technical support has been an important factor to increased attention to this issue.

Another important milestone that advanced this work was the HHS/DOE jointly sponsored Foster Care and Education National Meeting held in 2011. Teams with child welfare and education members from all states discussed how best to implement Fostering Connections in a manner that improves educational outcomes for those in foster care, including postsecondary education.

These policy and advocacy advances have helped established federal recognition about the importance of working together to increase higher education opportunities for students.

CSC: Florida just passed legislation to extend foster care. Where does Florida fall on the national scale for providing postsecondary services for foster youth?

JE: Florida is engaged in several exciting education initiatives, including postsecondary education. Passing foster care to 21 legislation is an important policy advance with many ripple effects. They are now engaged in a very thorough process to merge student outcome data collection from both the K-12 and higher education systems with child welfare’s information systems. Florida’s pioneering work in this area will be of interest to other states as there is a national call to improve student outcome reporting systems. The new Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA), an amendment to FERPA, now makes sharing of information between systems much easier. Florida seems to be on the forefront of using this act to share student information between child welfare and education in order to improve student education success at all levels.

The Fostering Achievement Fellowship Program at Tallahassee Community College provides comprehensive supports to assist foster youth in making the transition from a structured foster care program to independent young adulthood. The program provides financial, academic, and social support to students from foster care. This model holds promise for other Florida community colleges.

Another exemplary Florida initiative is Educate Tomorrow’s work in Dade County. They are bringing community partners together to address academic achievement issues for those in foster care – including postsecondary education and training. Their work promoting community dialog and planning includes upcoming work with community colleges. This is an area of national need.

CSC: What seems to be the key, this child welfare and higher education collaboration at the state level, in successfully building these programs? Would you agree?

JE: I think it is all about a focus on identifying the common agenda of identifying outcome-driven collaborative support systems that improve retention, program completion and career transition rates for students. I have seen effective and sustained higher education/child welfare collaborations evolve from a few passionate and dedicated people who start advocating for joint system improvements. Sometimes it is a policy advance that has brought higher education and child welfare representatives together. At times, research findings that shined a light on the dismal higher education outcomes for these students have resulted in compelling call-to-action.

It seems to me that the best higher education/child welfare collaborations I have seen in a growing number of states exhibit conditions described by FSG’s Collaborative Impact framework. These include identifying a common agenda, shared measurement collection and reporting, mutually reinforcing activities, continues communication, and a backbone organization to coordinate the work.  Systems collaboration takes time and effort, but the results being realized in California, Washington, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina are paying off in improved college success rates for students coming from foster care.

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