Abstract: Building Capacity within a Campus-Based Support Program for Former Foster Youth: A Participant-Engaged Approach (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

365P Building Capacity within a Campus-Based Support Program for Former Foster Youth: A Participant-Engaged Approach

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Leah Cheatham, PhD, JD, Assistant Professor, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Yan Luo, MSW, PhD student, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Krystal Dozier, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Alabama, AL
Sebrena Jackson, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Alabama
Jessica Bertram, MSW, Student, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Background/Purpose: Former foster youth (FFY) face a number of barriers to college attendance (Courtney et al. 2001). As a result, an estimated 10% enroll in post-secondary education as compared to 40% of youth in the general population, and even fewer FFY graduate college (Cohn & Kelly, 2015). Of the 10% of FFY who attend college, few have supports when facing new independence, which brings challenges with housing, finances, and healthcare (Day et al., 2012; Hernandez & Narccarato, 2010). Recognizing these challenges, policies and programs now seek to address the post-secondary needs of FFY, including an ever growing number of campus-based support programs administered through 2- and 4-year universities. While proliferating rapidly, few of these support programs collect data to facilitate evaluation of program outcomes (Dworsky & Perez, 2010). Careful research is essential toward realizing goals of increasing retention and graduation rates of FFY.  

The current study seeks to build capacity for ongoing evaluation of a campus-based support program for FFY by addressing two initial questions: (1) How do program stakeholders and participating students perceive the current program? and (2) Are the perceptions reflective of university data comparing program participants to program-eligible students? Answers to these questions guide the ongoing development of program logic models and student survey protocols aimed toward building capacity for sustainable program evaluation and development.   

Methods: Within a large, southeastern university, researchers first engaged in three semi-structured focus groups with campus-based support program stakeholders (i.e., community mentors, advisory board members, campus partners; n=10). Findings from initial stakeholder sessions guided refinement of the semi-structured interview protocols with program-involved students (n=16), where conversations focused on perceived program strengths, weaknesses, and plans for program growth. After transcribing both focus groups and interviews verbatim, iterative thematic analyses were conducted independently by multiple researchers (5 in total) using NVivo (v. 12). Emerging themes within these qualitative data guided the identification of key outcomes of interest within quantitative analyses (conducted in SPSS, v.25) comparing program participants (n=47) to program eligible students on campus (n=245) between January 2016 through January 2019.

Findings: Program stakeholders and participants alike highlighted concerns regarding program outreach. Analyses of university data indicated that approximately 20% of FFY on campus (n=245) participate in this program. Therefore, concerns relating to program outreach and enrollment strategies are warranted. Both stakeholders and students identified social support as a key strength of the program in addressing needs of FFY. This social support is offered through interactions with both the program coordinator and program-involved peers. Stigma and space were also recurring themes among both stakeholders and students. These issues were highlighted through discussion of university-level decisions affecting program resources that could be re-traumatizing to FFY, disrupting access to services and jeopardizing student stability on campus. 

Conclusions:  Understanding the challenges and successes of supporting FFY through both narrative impressions and campus-level data presents opportunities not only to build program capacity but also to strengthen existing student success efforts within higher education, at large. Implications for campus-based support programs, policies and continued research will be discussed.