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Barriers to Higher Education: Learning from the Experience of Foster Youth in the Time of the Pandemic

Diverse college students study outside on a lawn.

As the pandemic challenges all students seeking to succeed in college, a new study examines the barriers that young people in foster care have long faced, and the supports that make a difference for them. These findings guide the way to the policies and practices that will benefit all youth in these difficult times.

From need for the basics such as housing and food, to the essentials of academic readiness and financial support, this extensive study digs into the reasons why only 13.4% of youth who are in foster care during high school begin postsecondary education by the time they are 21. Even fewer persist beyond their first semester and year in college.

The study, titled Flattening the College Curve: Lessons from Foster Care to Improve Postsecondary Participation for all Youth, was conducted by researchers at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO) and the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab (Colorado Lab). Researchers examined 10 years of Colorado data on child welfare and education, augmented by insights from interviews with 23 youth who experienced foster care.

“It became clear as we worked with the data that these findings could be particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many young people face challenges with seeking a college education,” says Dr. Elysia Clemens, Deputy Director and COO of the Colorado Lab. “A postsecondary education helps to ensure financial stability throughout life. This study calls for a systemic approach to supporting vulnerable youth in this critical step on life’s path.”

What supports do young people need to succeed in higher education?

The following key findings about the experiences of youth in foster care extrapolate easily to the experience of other young people in vulnerable circumstances during these challenging times.

Meeting basic needs—from food and housing to a sense of love and belonging—are key to building the strength to succeed in higher education. Researchers used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a framework to understand how to support students seeking higher education.

Stability in a student’s living situation and school are essential. Youth who lived in congregate care (such as group homes) were 53% less likely to enroll in college. For each move to a new school during their high school years, the odds of enrolling in postsecondary education dropped by 12%.

Academic preparedness must be built early—by 9th grade. The odds of enrolling in postsecondary education within three years of high school graduation increased by 91% for those proficient in 9th grade math, and by 48% for those proficient in 9th grade reading.

Remote learning during the pandemic is particularly challenging. Youth in foster care often have less access to technology in general, and remote learning can be especially challenging for students who have experienced trauma. Students’ ability to plan, organize, and focus on their schoolwork can be compromised.

What changes need to be made to support youth in postsecondary success?

In order to set youth who have experienced foster care on a path for success in education, and ultimately in life, Colorado must continue to address systemic barriers to earning a high school credential and open the door to postsecondary education. The actions that the state takes to support these young people can have significant benefits for any students made more vulnerable by the current global pandemic.

Reduce the number of times a student changes schools to those in a youth’s best interest. Fortunately, Colorado is a leader in educational stability policies for youth in foster care, making sure that they have transportation to stay in their school of origin even if they must move for a home placement.

Share information about students between child welfare and education agencies. Despite serving the same young people, historically these systems have operated with minimal information sharing. When educators know about a child’s welfare case status, they can provide supports such as access to free lunch and fee waivers. And when caseworkers understand how a student is doing in school, they can integrate education needs into the supports they give a family.

Build the evidence for programs aimed in increasing high school completion—and expand them. There are programs, like Fostering Opportunities in Jeffco Public Schools, that make a real difference for students. Such approaches must be studied and funded to reach more students.

Invest in tuition waivers, prioritize paid apprenticeships, and other strategies to make college affordable. If students know that postsecondary education is affordable, they are more likely to seek out higher education. Paid apprenticeships, such as those through CareerWise, are particularly helpful to students as they seek to stabilize their living situations in service to postsecondary success. The Colorado Department of Higher Education’s road map for containing college costs and making college affordable is designed to erase equity gaps.

Address basic needs; reentry into foster care may help. Youth who exit foster care at the age of 18 and must immediately begin providing for their own basic needs are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to succeeding in college. Even with tuition scholarships, these students often must work multiple jobs, leaving them little time to focus on learning. Some states allow young adults to reenter foster care to support their basic needs while they attend college.

Support postsecondary persistence. Once students have their basic needs met, higher ed institutions can play a key role in helping them succeed. The Fostering Success program at Colorado State University and EPIC Scholars at the Metropolitan State University of Denver are examples of programs available to all students who identify as independent. These programs provide mentorship and enhanced academic and social-emotional support for all students who don’t have a family support system in place.