The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Educational Attainment During the Transition to Adulthood for Foster Youth

Friday, January 18, 2013: 4:00 PM
Marina 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Nathanael Opych, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Mark E. Courtney, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Jennifer L. Hook, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Seattle, WA
Purpose: Graduating from college is an increasingly important form of human capital.  Postsecondary education is associated with increased earnings and financial stability, improved health outcomes, and decreased reliance on government assistance (Kane & Rouse, 1995).  However, studies show postsecondary graduation rates ranging from 1-11% for former foster youth (Emerson, 2006; Pecora et al., 2003; Wolanin, 2005). Understanding the contributors to post-secondary educational attainment for foster youth is central to designing effective policies and practices to support these young people. 

Methods: Educational attainment of former foster youth from Wave 5 of the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (Midwest Study), when study participants were 26 (n = 596, response rate = 83%) is compared to that of their same-aged peers who participated in Wave 4 of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Help (n=890). Ordinal logistic regression is used to examine predictors of education at Wave 5 for Midwest Study youth using three outcome categories: less than high school; high school diploma or GED; one year of college or more. 

Results: At age 26, participants in the Midwest Study group were six times less likely to have completed a college degree than their Add Health counterparts (7.6% vs. 46.1%).  Out of the 333 Midwest Study participants who ever enrolled in college, 55% (n=181) had dropped out at some point.  Midwest participants who had dropped out of college since their last interview (n=168) identified the following primary reasons for leaving school: the need to work (67.3%), not being able to afford college (44.1%), and childcare responsibilities (36.3%).  Out of the 488 participants who were not currently enrolled in school, over 90% reported giving “some” or “a lot” of thought to continuing their education, but about half of these participants reported facing at least one barrier, with the most common barriers being not able to afford school (59.4%), the need to work full-time (42.9%), and childcare responsibilities (33.5%).  Ordinal logistic regression results indicate that being behind in school at age 18, having a substance abuse problem, and having a child decreased the odds of higher education, whereas being employed, remaining in care past age 18, and having high educational aspirations increased those odds.

Implications: Although the vast majority of Midwest Study participants view education as important for reaching their career goals, and those aspirations are predictive of their later success, various “real life” responsibilities that accompany young adulthood limit their postsecondary engagement and completion.  In particular, the cost of college, the need to work, and childcare responsibilities are prevalent reasons given for recently dropping out of school and as barriers preventing reengagement.  Our regression findings also suggest that addressing youths’ educational deficits and behavioral health problems as they approach the age of majority could improve their educational prospects. Our findings also add to the body of evidence coming out of the Midwest Study suggesting that allowing foster youth to remain in care through age 21 is an important protective factor as they make the transition to adulthood.