Abstract: Predictors of College Degree Completion at Age 23/24 for Youth with Foster Care Backgrounds (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Predictors of College Degree Completion at Age 23/24 for Youth with Foster Care Backgrounds

Friday, January 14, 2022
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Nathanael Okpych, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut, Hartford
Sunggeun (Ethan) Park, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, MI
Jenna Powers, MSW, PhD Candidate, Research Assistant,, University of Connecticut, Hartford, CT
Mark Courtney, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and purpose

Youth in foster care encounter substantial barriers to completing a college degree, with fewer than 1 in 10 graduating from college (Geiger & Beltran, 2017). Research is needed to understand factors that promote and hinder foster youths’ chances of earning a degree. However, limitations in child welfare data (e.g., no information on long-term college outcomes) and higher education data (e.g., no reliable identifier for foster youth) have limited the number of studies that investigate degree completion among foster youth (e.g., Okpych & Courtney, 2018). This presentation draws on an extensive longitudinal study of foster youth that tracked college outcomes up to age 23/24.


We analyze data from the CalYOUTH Study, which collected four waves of survey data from a representative sample of youth between ages 16.75 and 17.75 in December 2012 and who had been in California foster for at least six months (n=727, response rate = 95%). The binary outcome variable (1=college degree, 0=no degree) was constructed from the fourth interview wave when participants were 23/24 years old, and from National Student Clearninghouse data obtained around the same time. The sample includes youth with available data (n=719).

Logistic regression was used to examine predictors of degree completion. Several groups of predictors came from the first interview wave (demographics, educational background, risk factors, protective factors) and from state child welfare records (foster care history, maltreatment history). A supplemental analysis of just college enrollees (n=446) examined additional college-relevant predictors such as wehther youth received an Education and Training Voucher (ETV) and information about the college they attended (e.g., two-year vs. four-year).


Overall, 9.7% of youth completed a college degree by age 23/24. Several factors were found to significantly (p < .05) decrease the expected odds that youth completed a college degree, including being male (OR=0.41), sexual minority youth (OR=0.28), and ever repeating a grade (OR=0.34). Conversely, Black youth were more likely than White youth (OR=3.50) to complete a college degree, as were youth with higher reading proficiencies (OR=1.05), youth who earned mostly As (OR=10.5), youth who had ever been in kinship care (OR=2.56), youth who led the development of their transitional plan (OR=3.34), and youth who received “a lot” of college encouragement from foster care personnel (OR=1.95). In the supplemental analysis of college enrollees, fewer predictors were statistically significant (gender, race, sexual minority status). Additionally, receiving an ETV was associated with higher odds of degree completion (OR=3.16) as was enrolling in a four-year college (OR=5.19).

Discussion and Contributions

Although 80% of participants aspired to finish college, only 10% completed a degree. Findings underscore the importance of promoting strong and stable educational experiences that equip youth for college. Some youth may face additional barriers to degree completion (e.g., males, sexual minority youth) and may need greater support. Higher odds of completion for Black youth is a promising finding that runs counter to larger population trends. Receiving an ETV was associated with increased odds of degree completion, possibly by ameliorating financial hardships.