Opening Doors for Foster Youth

Ever been to a conference or professional meeting, and find that one of the sessions really sticks with you?  It happened to me last week.  The conference was for Admissions professionals and Registrars.  (The organization is called WACRAO – please no cracks about how it sounds like “wacko!”)  The session was called “Opening Doors to College for Foster Youth.” 

 Check out these YouTube videos, by a remarkable young lady who testified before Congress: Greta’s testimony part 1, Greta’s testimony part 2, and Greta’s testimony part 3.

At some level I had certainly understood about the challenges facing foster youth, especially as they “aged out” of the foster care system (which, in Wisconsin, happens at age 18).  What I didn’t realize was how astonishing some of the numbers are: on a national basis, foster youth are 20% less likely to graduate from high school and 40% less likely to attend postsecondary education than their non-foster peers.  Thing is, a majority – 64% – say they want to graduate from college (or beyond) when surveyed at age 17.

So, somewhere the dream dies.

And why wouldn’t it? 

Foster youth have a high probability of changing schools and of missing extensive amounts of school.  They often do not have in-home adults who value and promote higher education.  They are disproportionately low-income and/or homeless.  They perceive the cost of college as more of a barrier than it is in fact.  They often lack a stable, long-term relationship with an adult who can help them navigate the bureaucratic barriers often inherent in higher education.

Discouraging isn’t it?  Imagine how much more so for them.

There is some good news, though – we are in a position to help: “we” being you as school counselors, and “we” being those of us in college admissions.  How?  Well, first we in admissions need to know who these kids are – that’s where you can help, either by telling us (with permission, of course) or by encouraging the student to self-disclose in the applicant statement/essay.  Once the situation is identified, then we can proceed sensitively…taking into account the unique challenges inherent in the foster-youth experience.  This does not mean that we throw standards to the wind – but it does mean that we can look deeper into the student’s experience to better assess the student’s likelihood for success on campus.   Knowing circumstances can explain a lot, and can help us better translate prior experience into present potential. 

In addition, we can help the student to navigate the sometimes-tricky bureaucracy of higher education.  There are designated campus contacts in Wisconsin, at both the University of Wisconsin campuses and the Wisconsin independent colleges and universities.  Contact Denny Roark at UW HELP ( for the list.   (Contacts at the Wisconsin technical college campuses are forthcoming.) 

Let’s face it, we didn’t get into higher education for the money.  We are in the profession because we believe in the value of education and its potential for life transformation.  So, when the opportunity arises to truly change a life, most of us will welcome the opportunity.  Once a student is identified, we can get to know the student can become the “go-to” contact on campus.  Sometimes the saying holds true: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know….”  Most of us have been in higher ed (and on our campuses) long enough to know who to go to for what, and how to get things done.  Our expertise and familiarity with “the system” can help roadblocks become mere speedbumps. 

So, if you have a student who might benefit from a savvy campus contact, let us know.  Perhaps we can work together to make college a reality for another deserving student like Greta.  Isn’t that why we’re in this business?

Helpful links:

Wisconsin Department of Children and Families

Chaffee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999

McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act

Education and Training Vouchers (ETV)

DCF Scholarship Application

Orphan Foundation of America

Talent Incentive Program (TIP) Grant

Tips for Foster Youth Completing the FAFSA

Higher Education Act Reauthorization: Homeless and Foster Youth

Foster Club

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