For Foster Youth, Committing to Good Programs a Key Skill for College Prep

by Betsy Krebs

For high school seniors, this is the month of college acceptances and rejections. Some of those celebrating (or cursing and crying) are 17- or 18-year-olds in the foster care system. But not too many.

This isn’t because they don’t want to go to college. Teens in foster care, like most of their peers, want a good education. From the first young person in foster care I met working in family court as a lawyer over twenty years ago, to those I speak with today, every one without fail has told me they want an education that will open doors to a better life for themselves and their own families.

Seventy percent of youth aging out of foster care plan to attend college, according to Casey Family Programs, but only about 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care enroll in higher education. Only about 2 percent obtain Bachelor’s or advanced degrees, in contrast to 24 percent of adults in the general population.

Many of them will hear some version of this news as they leave the foster care system: “you are not college ready.”

This is not their fault.  In New York City, only 29 percent of public high school students are considered ‘college ready.’ And while some blame teachers, unions, or too little school choice, it is plain to see that whether you are ready for college pretty much depends on the ZIP code you have the good or bad luck to be living in.

Almost 80 percent of high school graduates from rich, predominantly white and Asian neighborhoods are considered ready for college, and only about 10 percent of kids from poor, predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods are deemed ready.

“If less than a third of public high school students in New York City are college ready, imagine how tough it is for our kids in foster care and juvenile justice systems!”

Is that what you’re thinking?  Me too.  These days, helping a kid get through high school and into college, then through college, is a task that takes many years of effort by many people who all want that young person to succeed.

There certainly are some good education-related programs for teens in foster care.  One social services agency director I know is offering private SAT tutoring to foster care kids at his agency, filling in an important piece of the puzzle. Other sorts of programs, whether college essay writing classes, mentoring programs, or self-advocacy seminars, are also important, but not on their own sufficient.

For all the pieces to fit together, there needs to be an explicit recognition that every individual teen has something valuable to give to the community, and an alignment of policies, programs and resources to make sure each teen can take advantage of opportunities such as college.

How can you increase your teens’ chances of being college ready?

When you have or know of good programs that help prepare youth for college, you need to communicate to the young person that their participation will matter to this program. One simple way to do that is to insist that they can meet the attendance requirements of the program, and to make sure that their foster parents or group home staff know that this is a priority.

When I ran a program, we found it was important to convince young people (and their agencies) that out there in the ‘real world’ beyond child welfare systems, people expected you to show up at school, college, or work, and are in fact counting on you to be there.

Too often in the system our youth are given the message that excuses are okay, and while the rationale behind this is often benign, as in: “We know these youth have complex lives and many issues to contend with, so let’s be understanding.”

But the message that gets heard is that it really doesn’t matter if you show or not; you are not that important to this activity. We need to let all teens in foster care know that their presence matters, and that we expect they can be ready for college and more.

Betsy Krebs is a lawyer, author, and the co-founder of Youth Advocacy Center, which tapped into the potential of young people in foster care to advocate for themselves and drew attention to their needs and strengths for almost 20 years, before closing in 2012.

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