Bridging Disciplinary Boundaries (January 11 - 14, 2007)

Marina Room (Hyatt Regency San Francisco)

Educational Attainment of Youth Making the Transition to Adulthood from Foster Care

Judy Havlicek, MSW, University of Chicago and Mark E. Courtney, PhD, University of Chicago.

Educational attainment is a major indicator of SES and an important predictor of income and occupational prestige over the life course. In particular, graduation from college is a key factor in the status attainment process and a marker for success during the transition to adulthood. In spite of the fact that many youth who age out of care express interest in going to college, research has consistently shown that few of these youth will attain their goals (Barth, 1990; Blome, 1997; Cook, 1991; Courtney et al. 2001; Festinger, 1983).

Research on the conditions under which foster youth enroll in and graduate from college is very limited. We used data from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (Midwest Study) to examine college attendance among youth exiting out-of-home care and to examine predictors of college enrollment. At age 19, 17% of the young adults in our sample were enrolled in a 2-year college program and 7% were enrolled in a 4-year college. However, our data also suggest that those youth who remained under the care and supervision of the child welfare system at age 19 were more than three times as likely to be enrolled in college as youth who had been discharged (37% versus 12%). Comparisons to data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) show youth making the transition to adulthood from out-of-home care were much less likely to attend college than their same-aged peers in the general population.

We estimated a probit model to better understand the factors that predict enrollment in a two- or four-year college among 19 year olds in our study. Independent variables included demographic characteristics; experiences prior to entering out-of-home care (e.g., maltreatment history); out-of-home care placement history; social support including closeness to family; psychological functioning including mental health diagnoses and delinquency; educational experiences through high school (e.g., failing grades, grade retention, scores on the Wide Range Achievement Test of Reading); and a dichotomous variable indicating whether youth were still in care at age 19. After controlling for the other variables in the model, being retained one or more grades and lower reading test scores decreased the estimated likelihood of college enrollment whereas remaining in care through age 19 increased the estimated likelihood of college enrollment. The subsequent estimation of a bivariate probit instrumental variable model provides evidence that the effect of remaining in care past age 18 on college enrollment was not simply the result of selection bias associated with the process of youth leaving or remaining in care.

Our findings suggest that educational deficits of foster youth, some of which are at least partly a function of their experiences in care (e.g., grade retention), have strong affects on their post-secondary educational attainment. Our findings regarding the relationship between remaining in care into early adulthood and college enrollment call into question federal and state policies that often force young people out of care at 18.