Recognition that youth who have experienced foster care are far less likely than their peers to graduate from college has spurred growing efforts in educational institutions and child welfare organizations to find ways to improve their odds.
Those efforts were on display in Los Angeles last week during the third biennial Blueprint for Success Education Conference, organized by California-based John Burton Advocates for Youth and the statewide partnership California College Pathways.
Employees and foster youth involved in support programs at colleges and universities shared successful approaches, from mentoring programs to an app that gives students a digital nudge to keep them on track.
Together, they hope to change statistics such as those found in new research that says foster youth in California colleges consistently earn credits at lower rates than non-foster youth.
After their first year of college, 18 percent of foster youth have earned at least 15 credits, compared to 34 percent of non-foster youth, according to a new report by the Educational Results Partnership and California College Pathways that was distributed at the conference.
Programs such as Guardian Scholars, which provides scholarships, mentorship and other support services for foster youth on college campuses in California, are working to change those results.
At some colleges, Guardian Scholars programs have partnered with a technology company to use a mobile app called Persistence Plus, which tries to nudge students toward success by sending them questions about their goals and challenges, words of encouragement and information about resources that are available. Three out of five students send a response to the nudges, said Ross O’Hara, a behavioral researcher with Persistence Plus.
Students who opted to receive these text messages had a persistence rate that was 14 percentage points higher than for students who opted out, O’Hara said.
Valerie Rios, a student at Riverside City College, said that receiving the messages made her think more about the educational challenges she faced and how to address those via a to-do list.
“Since we don’t have those nudges from a real person around us, even though it’s a computer I think it does have an impact on students,” Rios said.
Mentoring programs aim to make sure students also receive positive nudges from real people.
Virginia Community Colleges shared their lessons from 10 years of operating Great Expectations, a program that connects foster youth with an adult coach at 21 community colleges in Virginia.
The report from the Educational Results Partnership showed that more foster youth are being identified as students in California’s community colleges. The number of identified foster youth in the California Community College system has grown from 13,400 youth in 2014 to 23,500 youth in the 2015-16 school year.
This increase is largely due to better identification of which students are in foster care, but may also represent an actual increase in the number of foster youth attending community college, according to the report.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges, spoke during the conference about his desire to see more foster youth use community college as a path toward a successful career.
“The economy is unforgiving of individuals who don’t have a credential,” Oakley said. “So if we really want to give these individuals and these students an opportunity to be successful, we have to push beyond high school graduation and we have to make sure that they not only have access to college but complete with a credential.”
Besides the changing economy, policies such as extended foster care in many states mean many more youth are attending college while still in foster care.
“All people who are intersecting with foster youth, whether they be social workers, or counselors or caregivers or [Court-Appointed Special Advocates] or K to 12 district staff, [should be] carrying that message that college is possible for foster youth and that it should be considered a viable option for any student who’s interested in going in that direction,” said Debbie Raucher, a project director for California College Pathways at John Burton Advocates for Youth.
Materials from all presentations are available on the conference website.