Understanding Foster Youth in College

In the United States, the population of foster youth has been steadily growing in number. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 437,465 children were in foster care in 2016, which represents an increase of more than 40,000 in the last five years. This population faces a unique set of challenges that may create barriers to educational successes, especially at the college level, according to research recently published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review. In many areas of the country, foster youth will “age out” of the system’s benefits and be independent for the first time at 18. Most foster youth express a desire to earn a college degree, with many expressing goals of professional or terminal degrees, researchers Sylvia Sensiper and Carlos Andres Barragan wrote in their 2017 article. For the aspirations of this growing population to be actualized, institutions will have to provide additional support.  

The Population 

There are few national statistics on this population; however, a 2009 report on the longitudinal Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth documented that in the Midwest, of the adults between the ages of 23 and 24 who had been raised in foster care, 33% had completed some college and only 6% earned a college degree. Foster youth face issues of not having a familial support system, and multiple home placements can lead to gaps in education causing the need for remedial coursework in college. While these issues are also common for first generation students, foster youth are less likely to graduate college than their peers, even when accounting for race and socioeconomic status, Sensiper and Barragan reported. It is evident that foster youth require specialized support, but if they do not have a safe space to self-identify, they may be an invisible group on campus. 

Current Research 

Many institutions offer support services specific to students who were previously in foster care. A 2015 California College Pathways review of California post-secondary schools found that all campuses within the University of California and California State system offered some type of foster support program. However, there is limited research on the needs of college age foster students and limited research on the effectiveness of these programs at retaining and supporting students. In 2017, researcher Alana Kinarsky attempted to fill this gap by identifying key barriers to success that are unique to this demographic and areas that need improvement in the foster services program at one public California institution. Her study also was published in Children and Youth Services Review

Students currently enrolled in the Guardian Scholars Program, a campus support program reserved for foster youth on campus, served as participants for this study. The Guardian Scholars Program is an office housed within a Student Resource Center, and at the time of the study was staffed by one full-time employee, a part-time career counselor, and two graduate interns studying social work. Participants in the program were sent a web-based survey designed to identify their challenges and supports that the campus provided to them. Questions shaped by a preliminary focus group and literature review were broken into four core topics: academics, career, finances, and life skills. These areas have been identified as persistent struggles for foster youth, and participants’ answers illustrated ways that the campus could improve their support system. A descriptive quantitative analysis was used to answer the guiding questions, and the resulting answers were broken into categorical percentages through SPSS. 

Findings at this institution echoed previous studies in that the students had high aspirations for the future, with many desiring to continue education beyond a bachelor’s degree. GPAs ranged from 1.7 to 3.8, with a mean GPA of 2.9; however, a quarter of respondents had below a 2.6 GPA. While nearly all students (93.2%) visited the resource center informally, or attended scheduled events, less than half (45.8%) ever scheduled a meeting to discuss academics or tutoring options. One possible impediment to accessing academic support was if students realized they needed help only a day or two away from a deadline and did not have an appointment to be seen by an advisor or tutor. Drop-in services or peer tutors available outside of business hours may be beneficial to providing last-minute academic support, Kinarsky wrote. 

Along with a sense of self-confidence in their academic work, most students reported feeling confident that they would be able to find a job after graduating, although less than half reported that they were confident they would be able to secure a permanent, full-time position. Having an advisor would assist with this transition and ensure students had the appropriate credentials to find the kind of work they desired. This problem has been illustrated in previous research of foster youth; due to lacking adult models and mentorship, many individuals may find themselves unaware of the degree, work experience, or coursework necessary to obtain a desired job or entrance to a graduate program, Sensiper and Barragan found.  

One of the more serious challenges Kinarsky identified for foster youth in college is that more than half of participants reported food insecurity, and one quarter reported having been homeless while in college. Of the students who reported skipping or reducing meals to cope with food insecurity, only 53% reported seeking help. This may speak to a lack of knowledge about available resources, or a reluctance due to discomfort, which may be an issue of campus climate. While participants indicated feeling comfortable and supported by staff in the Guardian Scholars Program, they also reported hearing negative stereotypes about foster youth on campus from peers and felt uneasy disclosing their identity.  

When creating a foster youth services program, it is important that related services can be housed in one central location, such as a student union. While needed services such as career centers, academic tutoring, a food pantry, or counseling may already be available on campus, bringing them together under one program and marketing directly toward these students could help to retain and support a particularly vulnerable group. As this population can often be invisible on campus, collocation may create a much-needed social support system. Such services can also help to reduce perceived stigma about foster youth status.  


An unwillingness to disclose status as a foster care alumnus is one of the main limitations of any research on this topic. Therefore, it is difficult to fully understand the population without knowing how many students are lacking support. As anonymity is a concern of some, campus professionals should be aware of privacy issues relative to their programs. Campuses could also include education about the needs of foster youth in diversity and inclusion trainings with staff and student leaders. Finally, because Kinarsky's study was only conducted on one campus, it is important to consider the unique needs of one’s own campus when creating a support program and implementing continual assessment to ensure that the program is accomplishing its
intended outcomes. 


California College Pathways (CCP). (2015). Charting the course. Using data to support foster youth college success. California College Pathways. 

Courtney, M., Dworsky, A., Lee, J., & Raap, M. (2009). Midwest evaluation of the adult functioning of former foster youth: Outcomes at age 23 and 24. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. 

Kinarsky, A. (2017). Fostering success: Understanding the experience of foster youth undergraduates. Children and Youth Services Review, 81, 220-228.  

Sensiper, S., & Barragan, C. (2017). The guardian professions program: Developing an advanced degree mentoring program for California’s foster care alumni. Children and Youth Services Review, 82, 329-336. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2017). The AFCARS report, pp. 1-6. 



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