- Preparing Youth in Foster Care for College Through an Early Outreach Program
Foster youth are among some of the nation’s most underserved students in higher education. Of the more than 430,000 youth in the foster care system, only about 50% will graduate from high school and as little as 3% will ever earn a bachelor’s degree (Pecora, 2012; Wolanin, 2005). These trends are even more troubling when you consider that over 70% of all foster youth aspire to attend college (Kirk & Day, 2011; Tzawa-Hayden, 2004). A burgeoning line of research on foster youth offers insights about the complex web of personal and educational challenges that significantly limit their college-going rates. For instance, researchers have documented the challenges foster youth experience, such as: difficulties satisfying their basic needs like food, shelter, and money; frequent and abrupt changes in school placement; low educational expectations; lack of access to adequate healthcare; and unstable social supports and financial resources (Davis, 2006; Pecora, 2012; Wolanin, 2005). Taken together, these challenges, among others, create sizeable opportunity gaps that accumulate over time and significantly reduce the likelihood that foster youth will graduate high school prepared for college. With so few options and so many challenges, interventions are needed that address such gaps, providing foster youth with the resources and supports necessary for successfully navigating college-going decisions and the path from foster care to college.
One common strategy for improving academic preparation and college readiness for underserved groups is precollege outreach programs (Swail & Perna, 2002). Federal TRIO programs like Upward Bound, for example, are perhaps the most widely known. Other programs include GEAR UP, AVID, and dozens of other locally based programs like Blueprint:College, sponsored by I Know I Can (http://iknowican.org/programs-events/blueprintcollege). Generally speaking, precollege programs vary in duration (e.g., 1 week to year-round), differ in curricular focus (e.g., academic, career, or social-oriented), and may be residential or offer students a stipend for participation (Corwin, Colyar, & Tierney, 2005; Swail & Perna, 2002; Strayhorn, Kitchen, Johnson, & Tillman-Kelly, 2015). While critically important for smoothing students’ transition from high school to campus (Strayhorn, 2011), precollege programs alone are insufficient for addressing the multifaceted problems facing college-bound foster youth whose precarious positions may require creative collaborations between [End Page 612] state agencies (e.g., youth services), schools, and campuses (Sarubbi, Parker, & Sisneros, 2017). For instance, Emerson and Bassett (2010) urged university administrators to take new steps in developing more integrative outreach and campus support programs that address the needs of foster youth specifically. They recommended development of community and university collaborations with social service agencies; exposure to personal, academic, social, and psychological resources; and information about federal, state, and local supports. An effective precollege program for foster youth might consist of all these key elements.
To help increase the college preparation of local foster youth in a Midwestern city, we developed a working group comprised of foster youth nominated by agency staff, staff from a university research center that sponsored and coordinated the program, local community leaders who work with foster youth, and city government representatives. One outcome of this working group was the development and implementation of the Reach Higher Outreach Program (hereafter Reach Higher), drawing on insights from existing scholarship and research (e.g., Emerson & Bassett, 2010; Strayhorn, 2011, 2012).
PREPARING FOSTER YOUTH TO REACH HIGHER
The working group originated from a campus-based, university-level research center engaged in social science research related to college student success, particularly for underserved or otherwise vulnerable groups. At the time, we were conducting research examining the educational experiences of foster youth and their pathways into and through college. As part of our commitment to community outreach and engagement, we aimed to translate our research discoveries to practice; specifically, we worked with others to leverage insights from our foster youth research to develop and implement a new initiative that would expose students to knowledge and resources that are critical for successfully navigating the college-going process. To get started, we invited individuals from across campus and the local community to participate in an initial brainstorming meeting. Campus invitees...