Neglected and Overlooked: Report Uncovers Disparate Outcomes For College Students with Foster Care History

Blog Post
Feb. 23, 2023

Community colleges play a crucial role in providing access to postsecondary education pathways among historically marginalized groups, particularly young people aging out of foster care. Studies indicate that over half of individuals with foster care experience begin at a two-year institution. But new evidence suggests that some community college administrators have neglected and overlooked the specific challenges and complex barriers these students face, hindering their chances of success. For example, over 90 percent of Illinois students under state care fall short of completing any degree while enrolled at a community college.

In 2021, researchers from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall and the University of Illinois undertook a mixed-methods study to explore the experiences of Illinois community college students who are or were in foster care. The investigation emphasized the voices and perspectives of 24 respondents: 14 self-identified as Black and 20 as female. In addition, the researchers were granted access to administrative records from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). They later matched those data with nearly 2,000 student records from the National Student Clearinghouse to examine enrollment and completion rates for students with lived experience in foster care. 

Consistent with national trends, the researchers found that only 35 percent of Illinois youth in foster care at age 17 enrolled in college. In addition, the study reveals several notable enrollment patterns among these students: 70 percent of Illinois youth enrolled in community college, and only 14 percent enrolled in a four-year college. However, it was not atypical for these students to transfer across different higher education sectors. For example, nine percent transferred to a four-year institution after starting their studies at a community college; another eight percent began at a four-year institution and moved to a two-year institution. The most alarming discovery–that only eight percent of Illinois youth under state care receive a certificate or degree–sheds light on the unlevel playing field they often traverse to pursue higher education.

Notwithstanding their determination and resilience, youth aging out of foster care endure significant challenges in obtaining postsecondary education, even at two-year institutions. But to know is not enough. Community college leaders must take proactive steps to dismantle barriers likely exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Institutional efforts to improve community college enrollment and completion among Illinois youth who spent time in foster care must not overlook the significance of race and gender. For instance, young women were almost twice as likely to have enrolled in community college than young men, consistent with the gender gap in college enrollment nationwide. In addition, multiracial and Black youth were less likely to enroll in community college than their White peers. 

But even before a young person enrolls in college, it is clear that school leaders and child welfare stakeholders must do more to equip young people in care with college knowledge and resources needed to complete their educational goals. In describing her transition from high school to college, Laticia, a 20-year-old respondent, stressed the importance of making sure young people in foster care learn about every college financial resource available to them: “It would have been helpful to know everything about applying to college…like the FAFSA…because that was so confusing. I had to learn about that myself…I didn’t know those Federal grants existed,” she said as quoted in the study’s report, “I was [considering] student loans because all I hear about is student loans everywhere. That would’ve been a bad idea.” 

Another respondent–a financial aid administrator–criticized the lack of institutional procedures to identify students with a history of foster care, which hinders their ability to offer timely support: “Generally speaking, we don’t have too many that come to us and say, “Hey, I’ve been in foster care. What can I do?” It’s more, we get notification from [the Department of Children and Family Services] that hey, we’ve got this student that’ll be attending your college, and they’re eligible for this waiver because of a scholarship or their whatever aid,” she said in the report. 

Notwithstanding their determination and resilience, youth aging out of foster care endure significant challenges in obtaining postsecondary education, even at two-year institutions. But to know is not enough. Community college leaders must take proactive steps to dismantle barriers likely exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Following are two ways that community college staff can better support this underserved population, particularly within the functional areas of enrollment and retention.

Strengthening postsecondary data and ensuring accountability for young people with foster care experience. The idea that what isn’t measured doesn’t receive attention is especially true in this context. For example, the Chapin Hall report indicates that community college campuses across Illinois have fallen short in cultivating supportive and inclusive campus environments for students aging out of foster care partly due to poor postsecondary data. But most community colleges do not track enrollments for these students, which hinders their ability to render crucial support and resources. Similar to how applicants report their legacy status at a college, one possible solution is to include distinct identifiers for foster care status in future iterations of the college application process. This provision should be mandated by state law. Ultimately, tracking the academic outcomes of these students through campus efforts increases recognition of this oft-forgotten student population and reveals areas for improvement in other critical areas (e.g., financial aid decisions). 

Upskilling community college staff and faculty on the needs of students with foster care experience. Educating community college administrators and faculty about the issues affecting youth impacted by foster care systems is a critical first step towards cultivating more supportive and inclusive campus environments and classrooms. The training should also include an overview of the various federal and state-level resources available to college students with a history of foster care, including access to tuition fee waivers in states like Illinois and California. To help close the information gap, the Department of Education created a website and toolkit to assist young people and caring adults in their lives with learning about resources related to college and career pathways.

Community college leaders committed to promoting equitable college experiences for all learners, regardless of background, have an opportunity to take swift yet intentional steps to address the outstanding educational disparities mentioned above. And they must ultimately ensure that these students are no longer neglected and overlooked.

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Dr. Mauriell Amechi is a Professor of Higher Education and Senior Policy Analyst at New America. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.