Feb. 1, 2023
From navigating the complex college admissions landscape to facing mental health and financial hurdles intensified by the pandemic, the journey from high school to college can be challenging for any student. But for youth in foster care, the road to higher education is often fraught with even more hurdles, making the transition from adolescence to adulthood a truly daunting experience. Not surprisingly, even during pre-pandemic times, it was less common for foster youth to pursue college directly after high school. However, a team of researchers are launching a promising postsecondary access intervention called Better Futures this year to equip older youth in care with vital supports to avoid typical roadblocks that may undermine their college aspirations.
The Better Futures program is an experimental intervention that will recruit four cohorts of participants from Illinois, Texas, California, and Oregon over four academic years. Selection criteria include being either in the foster care system or having aged out recently, having completed their junior year of high school, expressing a strong interest in exploring college opportunities, and not having enrolled in any postsecondary program. Researchers aim to recruit a total of 810 participants for the project.
Better Futures will consist of three core components. First, participants will gain real-life exposure to the college through a three-day summer college experience. Following the summer institutes, participants will receive access to yearlong individualized coaching. During monthly check-ins, youth in care can discuss any urgent questions about pursuing college and how to navigate various dimensions of the enrollment process (e.g., applying for financial aid as an independent student). Participants will also gain knowledge and cultivate critical skills for self-sufficiency, such as problem-solving and setting and achieving personal goals.
A final component of the Better Futures program will focus on engaging participants in workshops about college led by “near-peer” college students–that is, individuals who are in college or have graduated and also have lived experience with the foster case system. “One of the things that we’re testing with Better Futures is [the efficacy of] giving young people a chance to meet and connect with [“near-peers”] with lived experience in foster care,” Jennifer Blakeslee, one of the co-investigators on the grant, said.
So what separates this college access intervention from others?
Aside from employing the intervention simultaneously across four geographically diverse sites, the intentional focus on providing comprehensive programming tailored to the unique needs of older youth in care makes it an outlier and potential blueprint for future college access programs. With the support of a $3.8 million grant from the Institute for Education Sciences (IES), researchers from Washington State and Portland State University are leading a rigorous evaluation of Better Futures. “If found to be effective, the program will be one of the very few evidence-based practices for improving postsecondary outcomes for youth with foster care experience,” according to a project description on the IES website.
While the Better Futures intervention has the potential to become a national model for future youth development and educational equity-focused initiatives targeting foster care populations, its success and impact in the long-run will ultimately depend on whether it’s implemented as designed.
Following are two ways that researchers and practitioners involved in positive youth development and educational equity-focused interventions can better support this special population.
Center the cultural backgrounds and intersectional identities of program participants. Even though Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities continue to be overrepresented in the U.S. foster care system, less than a quarter of the evidence-based programs and practices in national clearinghouses and databases include information about how these programs work specifically for BIPOC communities. We also know that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system. Furthermore, young people labeled with a (dis)ability are more likely to age out of foster care before adoption or family reunification. Therefore, any intervention focused on eliminating barriers to college enrollment for student populations impacted by foster care must embrace and be responsive to participants’ cultural identities and backgrounds. Lastly, as other scholars have noted, much of the existing research literature erroneously portrays foster care populations as a monolith, overlooking the role of interlocking identities (e.g., race).
Emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion in program implementation. It is well-documented that students with access to same-race teachers report greater academic performance, such as improved graduation rates and a stronger aspiration to attend college. Cultivating an inclusive learning environment and affirming cultural diversity within the foster care community will require researchers and implementers to espouse and enact commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout program implementation and evaluation. For example, “near-peer” mentors and coaches involved with core programmatic efforts should reflect the diversity of the population served. For example, a Black male foster youth in Illinois or a Latina foster youth from California should have ample opportunities to engage with same-race/ethnic and gender coaches and workshop presenters. In addition to recruiting implementers who reflect the demographic diversity trends in the local and national foster care contexts, all implementers should participate in bias training. Furthermore, researchers involved in the study should also participate in critical self-reflection activities led by DEI and qualitative research experts about the role of positionality–or how the researcher’s identity influences how they see and interpret the world and interact with others.
Despite the many challenges foster care youth face during the transition to college, they possess a resilience and determination that is truly inspiring. By providing support and resources, we can help level the playing field and give these young adults a chance to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential.
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