Less than 10 percent of former foster youth earn a bachelor’s degree.
That’s not because they’re not interested in attending college: According to Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania, 70 percent of youth who have experienced foster care do want to.
“The research tells us that — yet they attend it at less than half the rate of their peers,” she said.
There’s clearly a disconnect between what happens at the start of college and where foster youth end up. The Field Center is racing to fill that gap by deriving lessons from national research and its local Foster Care to College (FC2C) program, supported by The Philadelphia Foundation.
A major part of FC2C is the Field Center’s provision of technical support to a cohort of four area colleges and universities, which are the first institutions in the region to start campus support programs for foster youth. Those participating institutions are Cabrini University, Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University and West Chester University.
Examples of supportive services for foster youth at these campuses include:
- A single point of contact in the campus for foster youth
- Education in the financial aid office
- Access to year-round housing
- Priority access to work-study programs.
A video on the “Foster Care to College” website describes other opportunities for supporting foster youth on campus.
A lot of the needed resources for supporting foster youth already exist at colleges, according to Schilling Wolfe — but “it’s a question of organizing it, and it’s a question of identifying folks who will be the person to help coordinate this initiative,” she said, “which is why we encourage each of the colleges to develop teams across campus.”
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Locally, in addition to establishing the four-college cohort with campus support programs, the Field Center also created a directory for the Greater Philadelphia area listing every college’s support services which could be of use to a student from the foster system.
Now it’s looking to scale.
Seth Morones-Ramírez, a new Stoneleigh Fellow at the Field Center, has taken on the mission of bringing the center’s work statewide. Not only will he be involved in launching two new cohorts of university programs across Pennsylvania, he’ll also be growing the directory of college support services to the state level.
This work calls for no less than a culture shift within universities.
Morones-Ramírez’s vision for his work calls for no less than a culture shift: “We want universities to take this seriously. That causes us to have to focus on helping institutions shift the way they think about supporting youth who come from vulnerable backgrounds.”
The culture shift on campus he envisions would involve recognizing the unique experiences and need of foster youth.
“If we’re being honest, a lot of foster youth are coming from very traumatic pasts,” he said. And he would know: The Penn Graduate School of Education alum has been through the system, too.
“It’s not only just about making sure that financial aid’s set up, making sure that housing’s set up,” Morones-Ramírez said. “It’s also, “Let’s connect you to counseling services, let’s connect you to culture services if that’s what you need.’ … Having someone [at the university] who understands that would sort of aid in that culture shift.”
It’s on universities to make their campuses more welcoming for students coming from the foster system, but those interested in doing so — and that should mean every university — can draw upon existing resources to create supports.
“All it takes is a commitment and a willingness to think outside the box,” Schilling Wolfe said.