The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, re-introduced late last year, would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to focus on homeless and foster youth, bringing changes that would address ongoing barriers to higher education for this population.
The pending legal changes are in lockstep with efforts across the nation to help vulnerable youth transition into adulthood.
This act would clarify that unaccompanied and homeless youth under age 24 are independent students so they can receive financial aid. Homeless and foster youth would no longer have to re-certify their status every year in order to qualify for that aid. The act would also require higher education institutions to create a plan to help homeless and foster youth access housing during and between school terms. Finally, higher education institutions would be required to work with child welfare agencies, homeless service providers, and school district homeless liaisons to identify, reach out to, and recruit homeless and foster youth.
The Transition to Independence Program at Wayne State University in Michigan and other programs like it are trying to address these very issues.
The Transition to Independence Program (TIP) offers resources and interventions intended to increase college access and improve graduation rates of foster youth. TIP includes two mentoring programs; one is peer mentoring where participants in their junior and senior year mentor freshmen and sophomores, and the second is a career mentoring program for participants in their junior and senior year. TIP’s retention rate at Wayne State University has grown to 82 percent in its third year.
In order to continue to make these programs better for foster youth, “states need to share data, clarify who foster youth are, and clarify definitions of foster youth,” said Dr. Angelique Day, an assistant professor at Wayne State University, and the founding director of TIP. “Some colleges keep dorms open for foster youth who have nowhere to go, but they do not keep the dining halls open.”
In response, TIP opened a food pantry and provides meals when the school campus is closed.
Having been through the foster care system herself, Day understands the difficulties and systemic barriers that make it hard for foster youth to succeed beyond high school.
Foster youth age out at age 18 or 21, depending on the state they live in. A 2011 study in Children and Youth Services Review defines aging out as the legal event that happens when a court formally discharges a youth from the state’s custody based on the youth’s age. Many foster youth who age out do not have a family to go to or a stable home.
Foster youth are less able than their peers not in foster care to depend on a family for shelter, adult guidance, and financial help after high school. According to a 2010 study, there were 32,000 foster youth who left the system by aging out in 2009. The study found that just over half of total foster youth complete high school, and two in 10 go on to college compared to 60 percent of their non-foster youth peers. Of the foster youth who do go on to college, only one to 10 percent complete a degree.
The same 2011 study found the low rate of college attendance and completion due to inadequate academic preparation, and a lack of financial, housing and supportive services available to college students from foster care. Child welfare agencies put more emphasis on getting a high school diploma or GED and then getting a job instead of promoting college attendance.
The researchers of the study identified housing, financial assistance, academic preparation, the need for emergency assistance, youth’s personal challenges, and the need for advocacy as the major obstacles facing foster youth. There are programs in place like the Transition to Independence Program at Wayne State University that address these obstacles, but these programs are far from ubiquitous.
The researchers concluded that it is vital to ensure the success of foster youth graduating with college degrees, an important prerequisite for career advancement and financial stability.
Abigail Wilson is an Advanced Standing MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. She is interested in child welfare policy change, specifically around issues of child abuse and neglect, poverty, and the foster care system. Her current field placement is at the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law. Abigail hopes to continue to work within the child welfare field.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.