Theresa Gamboa entered the foster care system in California’s Bay Area at 16 years old, after tumultuous years in an abusive home. Around the same time, she found out she could graduate from high school early and apply for scholarships and grants that would allow her to attend college for free.
But the road wouldn’t be easy. If it weren’t for a veteran social worker and a friend of her sister’s employed at a local university who helped her apply she may never have made it past high school graduation.
“I just leeched onto any opportunity that I got, and school was my opportunity,” said Gamboa, who attended a city college in San Jose and later a four-year school. “That was my ticket out.”
Higher education can be life changing for young people in foster care, but they are far less likely to enroll in college than their peers — in large part due to a lack of resources and support that kids without parents need while they’re in high school.
Federal education officials are now investing millions of dollars to see whether providing coaches and college counseling to these students will help. Researchers at Portland State University first piloted the program being further reviewed, Better Futures, more than a decade ago. The program that teaches foster youth about higher ed opportunities, identifies their goals, and provides individual coaches.
Beginning this month, the program will be studied over five years in four states, under a $3.8 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education. If proven effective, it will be the only nationally recognized evidence-based program of its kind, and will be eligible for Title IVE federal funding.
The nonprofit Better Futures first launched in Portland, Oregon in 2009.
An initial federally funded research study published in 2015 found the program was an “experimentally validated model for increasing the higher education participation of youth with mental health conditions in foster care.” The ongoing research will expand on those initial findings.
Surveys show that at least 80% of foster youth want to go to college. But compared to their peers who have not spent time in government care — including comparisons with other low-income first-generation college students — they are far less likely to enroll and even less likely to graduate. Reliable national statistics are unavailable, but several studies show fewer than 20% complete two-year or four-year degrees.
The obstacles are myriad. Gamboa, for example, who is now 26, described a succession of upending experiences as she moved from home to home in her teenage years — living first with family friends as distant as her sister’s ex-boyfriend’s mother, and later with foster families.
Going to school turned the former Santa Clara County foster youth’s life around. Gamboa graduated from San Francisco State University in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and now works for a tech startup in the Silicon Valley. Thinking back to her teenage years, she can hardly believe how much things have changed.
“That person that was struggling, I don’t know how she could take in this news,” she said of her educational success. “I’m in a really good position. I’m really happy with the way things are turning out. Life is so different now.”
Better Futures want to nurture more outcomes such as Gamboa’s.
The initial study of its methods was relatively small, but “had big findings,” said principal investigator Jennifer Blakeslee, a researcher in the School of Social Work at Portland State University. The program improved participants’ “mental health empowerment” and increased their sense of hope for the future. The students were also twice as likely to go to college as their peers who did not participate.
The new study will evaluate the Better Futures program serving foster youth younger than 21 at four universities across the country, located in a mix of urban and suburban or rural settings: Portland; Austin, Texas; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois and Oakland, California. More than 800 young people will participate, including 540 in a control group.
Young people enrolled in Better Futures will receive nine months of coaching on how to prepare for college, participate in workshops, and spend three days and two nights on a college campus to see what life there is like. The coaches will include people who have also grown up in foster care.
Programs for transition-age youth — defined as foster youth in their late teens and early 20s transitioning out of foster care — usually have some education component. But programs that focus solely on accessing higher education are less available.
In contrast, there are ever-more campus-based programs for college students who have grown up in foster care, once they have successfully applied and enrolled. The gap is a reflection on the many aspects of life for transition-age youth who lack consistent, caring adults in their lives that can get overlooked. They may have a social worker, foster parent or residential care case manager, even a high school counselor — but too often there is no single person dedicated to making sure the option of college is fully explored.
“Colleges have gotten really excited about offering campus support programs, but if you’re talking about college preparation, where does that fit?” said Amy Salazar, an associate professor of human development at Washington State University and the study’s other principal investigator. “Does that fit at a high school? Does it fit at a college?”
The Better Futures program is now housed at four universities, but in the future it may be better situated if based out of child welfare agencies or nonprofits that serve foster youth who are still in high school, Salazar said.
Sebrena Jackson, the associate dean of educational programs and student services at the University of Alabama, founded another one of the few university-based, pre-college programs for young people in foster care, a program similar to Better Futures. Since 2008, the National Social Work Enrichment Program has run a six-week summer program for young people interested in pursuing a social work degree in Alabama and Georgia. In addition to the on-campus experience, the program provides college visits, employment opportunities, leadership development workshops, and instruction on creating and maintaining healthy relationships.
Jackson wants the perception of foster youth altered: That means changing the conversation from “are you going to go to college?” to “where are you going for college?” she said.
Lowered expectations for young people in foster care also appear to make a significant difference. According to research by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall published in 2019, caseworkers’ perceptions of a young person’s readiness plays a significant role in getting them to college. If the worker thinks the student is prepared, they’re more likely to invest the time and resources into helping them get there.
This attention is vital, said Washington State’s Salazar.
“When we take children into foster care, we’re assuming the responsibility of meeting their needs — and for older youth, preparing them for adulthood,” she said. “We’re clearly not doing that very well as a system currently, so we need better programs and we need better services. We owe it to the youth we’re committing to take care of.”