By Lynsey Clark
In California, a leading state in college assistance to foster youth, service providers are reporting that most of their clients are women, begging the question: where are the boys?
“The gender question is certainly an important issue for us because we are not seeing many young men,” said Sonja Lenz-Rashid, co-founder of the Guardian Scholars Program at San Francisco State, which helps current and former foster foster youth navigate college. “There are typically 70 percent women and 30 percent young men in our program. And we have seen a similar percentage break down for the last nine years. ”
The benefits of college completion often elude those coming out of foster care. Studies show only a small percentage will graduate, though girls do so at twice the rate as boys.
According to the 2011 Midwest Study from the University of Chicago, 11 percent of former female foster youth will graduate with a postsecondary degree compared to 5 percent of young men. The Midwest Study is one of few longitudinal studies of foster care outcomes in the United States.
On the national level within the general population, trends are similar. Women are entering college and graduating at higher rates than men. This phenomenon is consistent across racial groups. Women now hold 60 percent of bachelor degrees and account for three–fifths of graduate students. Service providers are seeing these trends concentrated among foster youth pursuing higher education.
Kevin Bristow, who runs the Renaissance Scholars Program at California State University–East Bay believes the rates of men at his program are even smaller.
“By far we have way more women than men,” said Bristow. “It’s approximately 80 percent young women to 20 percent men. That may not be the case across all campuses but for our campus it’s the norm.”
Both program directors speculate that high rates of male incarceration are one reason for the gender disparity.
“With the young male students I am working with the decision to pursue fast money [sometimes illegally] in order to provide immediate assistance for their families, often outweighs the financial cost and long-term planning that a college degree requires,” Bristow said. “And for a lot of our young men, the decision to pursue higher education is not widely supported by their friends and family. It’s hard to be the only one in your peer group who is saying ‘I’m going to get a college degree.’”
The Midwest Study also reported that young men who spent time in foster care reported a high level of recent involvement with the criminal justice system. Young men were more than twice as likely than young women to be convicted of a crime. Sixty percent of young men were convicted of a crime versus 28 percent of young women.
“Incarceration is so much more of a barrier to college completion,” Lenz-Rashid stated. “Though these young women have higher parenthood rates than the general population, these young mothers are still completing their degrees.”
Though Lenz-Rashid recognizes that incarceration is a factor, she said that there are other questions that providers need to ask to support young men transition out of foster care.
“Since consistently we have seen a discrepancy between women and men entering our program we need to start asking ‘what’s happening with these young men?’ We need to ask if they are being supported and encouraged in high school. We need to figure out what kind of support they need to get them into college.”
Lynsey Clark is graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. She wrote this story as part of her Journalism for Social Change fellowship with Fostering Media Connections.