A college education can contribute to social mobility, increased lifetime earnings, and improved health (Baum et al., 2013), however it is estimated that only 3-5% of those with a history of foster care graduate from college (Courtney et al., 2010) compared to more than a third of the general population (NCES, 2020).The most commonly cited reasons for dropping-out include mental health challenges and a lack of support (Courtney et al., 2011; Day, Dworsky et al., 2011; Morton, 2018). As youth with a history of foster care transition into adulthood, they are more than twice as likely to experience major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation than young adults in the general population (Evans et al., 2017; Morton, 2018; Salazar et al., 2013) and are less likely to receive mental health services after they turn 18 (McMillen & Raghavan, 2009). However, very little is known about how trauma, mental health experiences, and suicidal ideation and behaviors contribute to postsecondary educational access and success among these students.
Data were collected via an online survey from 94 participants ages 18 to 28 (μ = 20) who have a history of foster care and who are enrolled in college. Participants responded to questions about childhood and recent trauma experiences (Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, Pennebaker & Susman, 2013), mental health symptomology (Client Diagnostic Questionnaire, Spitzer et al., 1994; 1999), suicidality (Suicidal Ideation and Behavior; Osman, 2001), college adjustment (College Adjustment Questionnaire, O’Donnell et al., 2018), foster care experiences, and demographics. We used multiple regression to estimate models with college adjustment as the dependent variable (college adjustment overall and 3 subscales of college adjustment: educational functioning, relational functioning, and psychological functioning) with number of trauma experiences during childhood and within the last 3 years, suicidal ideation and behaviors, depression and anxiety symptoms as predictors.
Findings indicated that depressive symptoms (β = -.73, p<.01) and suicidal ideation and behaviors (β = -.06, p<.01) were significantly associated with overall college adjustment. When examining college adjustment subscales, depressive symptoms (β = -1.56, p<.001 ) was associated with educational functioning, anxiety symptoms (β = -.74, p<.01), suicidal ideation and behaviors (β = -.05, p<.05), and the number of childhood trauma experiences (β = .16 p<.05) was associated with relational functioning, and depressive symptoms (β = -.98, p<.01 and suicidal ideation and behaviors (β = -.07, p<.01) was associated with psychological functioning.
Conclusion and Implications
Findings suggest that students with a history of foster care who experience depressive and anxiety symptoms, suicidal ideation and behaviors, and childhood trauma may have challenges in adjusting to college. This study’s findings have implications for child welfare and community practitioners as well as student affairs staff working with students with a foster care background prior to enrollment and while students are on campus. Findings indicate that practitioners should ensure adequate assessment, treatment, and focus on the mental health of students while enrolled in postsecondary education to promote overall well-being and college retention and success.