A college degree has a significant impact on lifetime earnings and employment possibilities, better physical health, and less reliance on public assistance (Ma et al., 2016)—all of which impact resources and economic stability. Although society promotes the benefits of postsecondary education, there is a disparity for some diverse groups of students such as those with a history of foster care. Many foster youth aspire to go on to postsecondary education, however, only 33% will enroll in a two- or four-year institution, and less than 4% will graduate with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by the age of 25 (Watt et al., 2018).
The educational challenges of foster alumni begin long before they turn 18, often due to placement instability and inadequate academic preparation during their time in foster care (Okpych, 2012). Foster youth often experience frequent placement changes, which often mean changes in neighborhoods and schools, and difficulty in maintaining relationships and educational achievement, without a consistent educational advocate (Vacca, 2008). To address this gap, a pre-college educational mentoring pilot program was developed through a unique partnership with a county children’s court, court-appointed special advocate organization, child welfare agency, and university campus-based support program for foster alumni. The current study aims to understand the lessons learned in program development to improve college readiness and educational outcomes for foster alumni.
The current case study includes a purposive sample of 30 middle and high-school students in foster care in a southwestern state and their court-appointed special [educational] advocates, court officials, child welfare case managers, and university campus-based support program staff. This “college bound docket” provides targeted mentoring, advocacy, and academic support to prepare foster youth for postsecondary education through enhanced children’s court involvement. An intrinsic case study design is used to understand the structure and process of program development through observation and interviews with students, educational advocates, and program partners.
Several themes emerge regarding the process of program development, which are essential for program implementation. The value of consistency in relationships is a core component of the pilot program, in addition to continuity of communication among various professionals on the case. Having an educational advocate who is legally involved in the court case, educational meetings, and foster care/family team meetings is imperative, as is the opportunity for youth to see postsecondary education as a viable option by visiting a college campus, participating in campus-based pre-college programming, and receiving consistent future-focused messaging from advocates.
Conclusions and Implications:
Ensuring foster youth are academically and emotionally prepared to succeed in higher education can improve long term outcomes and reduce interrelated social justice issues of racial and economic inequality. Lessons learned from this case study can be used to inform the development of similar programming and policies in other states, as well as inform future research to demonstrate the long-term impact of such programming. Pre-college programming should be implemented in tandem with university campus-based support programs to create a pipeline of educational support to improve outcomes for foster care alumni.