We know that teenagers who experience foster care face adverse experiences across multiple domains, such as housing, juvenile incarceration and in schooling. Throughout history, we can see that they are more likely to experience adverse outcomes indicative of economic hardship: adult poverty, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment, and low rates of educational attainment.
To combat these outcomes, many seek higher education. Historically a college degree has been argued as the remedy to make disenfranchised people socially and economically mobile. However, we need to pay attention to the system that put them in there in the first place. For young people in foster care in Nevada, pursuing a higher education is an arduous and inequitable journey.
When looking at the educational outcomes of foster youth in Nevada, the numbers are grim. In a report by the Children’s Advocacy Alliance of Nevada, their analysis reveals that between 2018-20, the average high school graduation rate for foster youth in the state was 46.9%. The same report found that Nevada foster youth lag far behind their non-foster peers: the average graduation rate was 83% for the general student population.
Furthermore, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance reported that certain sub-groups of foster youth have a particularly unique experience. The graduation rate for foster youth who had an individual education plan (IEP) was 33% in the 2018-19 school year. The graduation rate for Black foster youth was 34%. Too many of these students face compounding disadvantages, as they must navigate racism, a lack of support from the system, and the prejudices and stigmas associated with foster care.
In 2018, Nevada implemented the foster youth fee waiver program with a “mission… to more effectively recruit, support, and retain students who have been dependents of the child welfare system.” That is a great start. But the fee waiver program does not address other systemic issues that make it difficult for foster youth to attend college (e.g. housing and basic needs, navigating trauma, and lack of a family and financial safety net). Nevada can and must do better and do more.
These meager high school graduation rates make college enrollment even more difficult, leaving an already marginalized group of young people pushed further to the margins of society.
Earlier this year we engaged with child welfare and education professionals at a meeting about how to better academically support foster youth. During this meeting, two of the main questions explored were, “In what ways has the foster care system failed to prepare Black and Latinx students for postsecondary education, and what can community stakeholders do to support these populations upon emancipating from foster care?”
Attendees recommended funding for transportation, housing, food and health care to name a few, but pointed to a lack of resources, educational infrastructure, basic needs and an overall dearth of funding for such support. The second recommendation was designating an institutionally funded point person to assist foster youth at their respective secondary and postsecondary campus.
Lastly, professionals in the meeting said foster youth and adult supporters who are working alongside them “need to be in the room” when policies are being created. A sentiment shared on this subject was that without that direct engagement, sometimes policymakers create programs that actually do more harm than good.
It is not only important to have professionals who understand the foster youth population, but also to have professionals on campus who can meet the unique needs of students of color from the foster care system.
Among U.S. states, Nevada ranks a disheartening 47th in child well-being, an incredibly low spot for a state with so much potential and promise. It is imperative to create educational equity for Nevada’s most marginalized children and families. It would be advantageous for the state’s legislators to invest in permanent funding for foster youth support programs at its seven public postsecondary institutions.
Also, given the over-representation of Black youth in Nevada’s foster care system, along with their challenges navigating educational systems and racism in larger society, understanding the plight of this population is imperative. Further, a greater investment of funding to support this population at the secondary-school level would increase high school completion and college enrollment. Lastly, we call for greater investment in support services that would increase family reunification and permanence.