At a business gathering the other night, a well-intentioned man said to me, "It's wonderful that the majority of foster kids want to attend college. Are there any existing programs to help them achieve this?” The short answer is "yes," but that doesn't touch on the dismal reality for thousands of foster teens.
Many organizations have college entry programs to help teens and some to help foster teenagers specifically. Started in 2001, Promises2Kids, a San Diego based non-profit, focused on helping foster children enter and graduate from college. Their First Guardian program supports 100 students per year by partnering them one-on-one with a mentor who monitors the student’s performance. Each foster student also receives a monthly stipend of $320 while they are attending school for incidentals, such as gas and car insurance that may not be covered by other funding.
The program touts an unheard of graduation rate of 80% for its foster youths. Many have gone on to achieve their MBA and doctorate. Yet the success doesn’t stop there.
Tonya Torosian, Chief Executive Officer for Promises2Kids, explained that the organization recognized that hundreds of foster teens never graduate from high school and that it was important to establish a program to address this critical issue. In 2013, Promises2Kids launched their high school initiative that presently supports 20 students at a time. Ninety-five percent of these foster students graduate from high school and go on to attend college.
To put this success into perspective, Denver Post writer, Eric Gorski, in his article “Colorado Foster Care Youth Less Likely to Graduate Than Homeless Kids” wrote:
“Just 27.5 percent of public school foster care students in the class of 2013 graduated on time, compared with 77 percent of all students, according to statistics from the state Department of Education and Department of Human Services published last week. About half of homeless students graduated with their class.”
The article goes on to state, “Foster care students dropped out earlier than students facing other challenges, an indication that earlier intervention could help.” It’s this earlier intervention that Promises2Kids has initiated with great success.
Other programs also focus on helping students while they are in high school. However, many college entry programs have structural processes that can and do essentially exclude foster youth. Reality Changers has a program where disadvantaged students come to their facility after classes to do homework and later that evening to receive training so they can successfully apply for scholarships. As a past guest and speaker to the group, I can say that the organization has the highest level of quality and success. Reality Changers has an outstanding track record for working with students so they win scholarships to top level colleges such as Dartmouth, Vanderbilt and Harvard.
Having said that, someone has to make an ongoing commitment to deliver the high school student to the Reality Changers’ facility. Most foster kids are not in a home situation where the foster parent will be this active. Many foster children are just happy to have some stability in their lives, such as not changing homes for the next six months. I spoke with one of the managers at Reality Changers who shared that he knew of no foster teens being in the program. So while the process works very well to help disadvantaged youths to graduate from high school and enter a quality university, foster children would probably not be participants.
PIQE, another non-profit dedicated to helping high school students get into college, focuses on parents getting trained so they can help their children successfully go through the college entrance and finance process. Again, many foster teenagers returning from school are not greeted by a foster parent who asks them how their day was or helps the child with their homework. It can happen, but it's unrealistic to believe that the majority of foster parents are willing or able to spend quality time helping their foster child get into college.
Another huge challenge for any foster youth is the impending date when they are forced out of their foster or group home. While some states have set the age at 21, as Ohio did in 2016, foster teens in half of the states age out at age 18. For thousands of former foster teens, their biggest concerns are where to get food and find a safe place to sleep, much less a place to store their school books and laptop, if they even have one.
The result is that tens of thousands of former foster children don’t complete high school, while less than 3% ever attend a four-year college. Despite hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that are devoted to caring for foster kids, the lack of coordinated services to help these kids complete high school is an educational crisis.
And finally let's talk about the active organization, Eva Longoria Foundation, that’s dedicated to helping Latina teenagers get into college. Longoria is to be applauded for taking her fame and wealth and using it to help Latinas. But when I spoke with the foundation, they explained that they presently do not have anything in place to specifically help the thousands of Latina foster teenagers. Could some get into the program? It's possible, but if there are foster youths in the program, they are either choosing not to identify themselves as being in foster care (completely understandable given how many get bullied for being a foster child), or there are not enough to have caught the attention of the foundation.
One proven way to help all foster teenagers to stay in school is for more financial support to be focused on family finding. Foster youth who are placed with relatives generally do better in school, graduate, enter college and earn their four-year degree at more than double the rate of children placed in foster homes.
So yes, there are programs that help foster teens to obtain their high school degree and go onto college, but, unfortunately, several obstacles prevent them from taking advantage of more than a handful of programs. We will continue to see unacceptable educational statistics for foster kids until more foster parents step up to help them stay in school and excel. At the same time, these parents need to be made aware of opportunities that could help their foster child.
The solution needn’t be complex, but getting there will take more than the present failing educational and foster care systems we have now. Much more effort has to be exerted to ensure that these kids get at least a high school education. Programs such as Promises2Kids need to be expanded so that those foster children who want to can get into a university or technical college. The result would be less homelessness and more children entering adulthood who are able to provide for themselves and others.
As a society, we owe it to these children to give them a real opportunity at a better, brighter future. It’s part of our social contract, and as far as our society with regard to foster care is concerned, the grade is verging on an “F” for failure. Fortunately, with work, this can improve because our foster children deserve much better.