Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

23P Supportive Adult Relationships and Postsecondary Success for Foster Care Alumni

Friday, January 13, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Amy M. Salazar, PhD, Recent Graduate, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Kevin R. Jones, MSW, Doctoral Student and Graduate Research Assistant, Portland State University, Portland, OR
Background and Purpose:

As a group, youth who have spent time in foster care are far behind the general population in postsecondary educational attainment. Only one to eight percent of foster care alumni successfully complete a bachelor's degree compared with 24% of adults in the general population (Casey Family Programs, 2008; Courtney, Terao, & Bost, 2004; Pecora et al, 2006; Reilly, 2003). Nevertheless, most do hold aspirations for higher education (McMillen, Auslander, Elze, White, & Thompson, 2003). For those who make it to college, former foster youth face a variety of obstacles related to successful postsecondary completion. One factor that may play a role in ameliorating obstacles is having supportive adult relationships to help students navigate the college experience.

The current study is a mixed-methods investigation of supportive adult relationships of college-attending foster care alumni. The current study aims to answer the question, “How do supportive adults impact the college success of foster care alumni?” It is hypothesized that the more helpful supportive adults are, the less likely students are to disengage from their postsecondary program. The ways in which these adults are more or less helpful are also explored qualitatively.


This study utilized an online survey to access 329 foster care alumni who received Casey Family Scholarship Program or OFA Foster Care to Success postsecondary scholarships and who either successfully graduated from college or exited the scholarship program prior to graduation. Participants were 74% female and had a mean age of 25.6 years (SD=2.7).

Social support wa measured using the Medical Outcomes Study Social Support Survey (MOS). In order to measure whether or not respondents had a caring adult during college, and how helpful this person was, participants were asked, “Did you have a supportive, caring adult to turn to while you were in college?” (yes or no) and to “rate from 1-10 how helpful this person/these people on average were, with 0 being “not helpful at all” and 10 being “extremely helpful”. Participants were also asked to describe how these adults were helpful to them.

Quantitative analysis included bivariate and multivariate comparisons of social support and the availability and helpfulness of caring adults in college with college disengagement. Qualitative analysis involved a thematic analysis of ways in which the supportive adults were helpful to the students.


Having a caring adult while in college was indicative of lower likelihood of disengaging from school (p<.05). The MOS social support score had a trend-level relationship with disengagement (p<.10). Qualitative analysis revealed a variety of themes describing ways in which these adults were helpful. These themes closely mirrored those represented in the MOS scale, including tangible, emotional, and informational support.

Conclusions and Implications:

Results suggest the importance of creating and maintaining caring adult relationships as foster care alumni work toward postsecondary goals. Implications include bolstering programming that pairs students with college-experienced adults, as well as improving policy to be clearer about what types of supports the programs that target postsecondary goals (such as independent living programs) should include.