July 01, 2014

Yes, You Can Go to College: Making Higher Education Happen for Youth in Care

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

How do you make higher education a reality for more youth in foster care? A recent Department of Education webinar* convened three experts to share the latest laws, policies, model programs, and resources that are removing barriers to higher education for foster youth. 

Promoting Primary and Secondary School Success

According to Kathleen McNaught, director of the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, barriers to higher education success for foster youth occur from kindergarten through high school as learning disruptions are shaped by placement changes, school absences, disciplinary actions, and a greater need for special education. 

McNaught said research shows these factors lead to poor education outcomes challenging foster youths’ ability to pursue higher education:

  • The average reading level of 17-18 year olds in foster care is seventh grade; 
  • Only half of foster youth graduate high school by age 18; and 
  • 2-9% of foster youth attain a bachelor’s degree.

McNaught also shared findings from a 2013 California study by the Center for Teaching and Learning at West Ed, supported by the Stuart Foundation. It found that when compared to other vulnerable groups (students with low socioeconomic status, non-English learners, and students with disabilities) youth in foster care in grades 2-7 had the lowest achievement levels in math and reading. The study also found that youth in foster care in 12th grade had the lowest graduation rates when compared to the other vulnerable groups.

Efforts are underway to improve education outcomes and pave the way to higher education for youth in care by addressing underlying factors:

  • school instability when a child is placed in foster care 
  • delayed enrollment in new schools 
  • high school absences 
  • school suspensions and disciplinary actions that disrupt learning 
  • records transfer and confidentiality issues
  • unmet special education needs 
  • lack of awareness of legal rights


Blueprint for Change. McNaught shared that the Legal Center has developed the Blueprint for Change, a framework for practitioners at the state and local level to address eight common education barriers facing foster youth. By implementing suggested changes around eight goals, states can implement reforms to help youth in foster care achieve greater success in school.

Federal Laws. Two recent federal laws have also addressed some education barriers head on, according to McNaught:

  • The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 ensures children in foster care are in appropriate educational settings. It requires that their case plans include assurances that their foster care placements factor in the proximity to their home schools. Child welfare agencies must also coordinate with the child’s school and ensure the child remains in that school unless it is not in the child’s best interest. For children who cannot remain in their home schools, the law allows federal funds to be used to provide transportation to the new school.

  • In 2013, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act was included as a new amendment to the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act. It made clear that a child’s education record may be released to a child welfare agency that has legal responsibility for a child in foster care. The act now gives child welfare agencies an independent right to access that information.

Model Practices. Throughout the country, model programs and efforts to address education barriers are also taking shape. McNaught highlighted school-based efforts that support foster youth in new ways, including:

  • School-based liaisons that support foster youth in school and advocate for their education needs. 

  • Education training and curricula to sensitize educators to the needs of foster children (Casey Family Programs’ Endless Dreams train the trainer curriculum, and Pennsylvania’s educator screen and toolkit).

  • Trauma-informed practices to ensure the climate in schools is trauma-informed since foster youth have often experienced several forms of trauma (Washington’s Compassionate Schools Initiative, Massachusetts’ Trauma Sensitive Schools).

McNaught also cited programs that model interagency collaboration, bringing courts, education, and child welfare together to address education needs of children in care. These include Cincinnati’s Kids in School Rule, and the Education Committee of Texas Children’s Commission, part of the Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, which is engaged in a multi-year initiative changing laws and practice to better respond to education needs of youth in care.

Promoting Higher Education Success

John Emerson, Postsecondary Education Advisor, Casey Family Programs, shared some outcomes for foster youth who do pursue higher education. “Of the 100 young people who enter high school from foster care, about 50 will graduate,” he said. He added that “roughly seven will be college ready, and 10-15 will enter a higher education or career training program. For those foster youth who pursue higher education, maybe seven will obtain an associate’s degree or certificate, while two will obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher.” 

“If foster children went to college at the same rate as youth in the general population, there would be an additional 100,000 kids in our higher education system,” said Emerson. “That’s an alarming call for action.” 

The independent status of foster youth makes pursuing higher education a challenge. “Young people who go to college who are in foster care are independent, not only for financial aid purposes, but also for their support networks,” said Emerson. “They are in survival mode, wondering how they’re going to make it and address basic needs for housing, books, and so forth. This dominates many of their lives as they try to navigate the higher education system.”

Being unaware of the specific support needs of foster youth by college and higher education programs also contributes to poor outcomes. “Colleges that are aware and delivering support services effectively are finding increased success rates for current and former foster youth in college,” he said.


Policy Advances. Emerson shared some promising federal and state policy advancements over the last several years that address barriers for foster youth in higher education.

  • Reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunities Act. For the first time, the reauthorization specifically mentions youth in foster care and the importance of attending to their needs. Young people in foster care are now automatically eligible for all TRIO and GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) – two federal college readiness programs. Colleges are starting to implement staff development activities and strategies for recruiting students who are hard to reach, including youth in foster care. Securing temporary housing for youth in care is specifically encouraged.

  • College Cost Reduction Act. The act makes clear, for federal financial aid purposes, that an “independent student” includes youth in foster care. This provision significantly increases the number of current and former foster youth in this category. For eligible students, parent or guardian income does not have to be considered for financial aid. The act also makes all foster children who were in care at all after age 13 eligible for GEAR UP and TRIO college readiness programs. 

  • Affordable Care Act. The ACA extends Medicaid benefits to young people in foster care up to age 26, even if they are not living with or lack a relationship with a parent. This is an important provision for youth in care since lack of health benefits is a factor in their educational success. 

  • Education Training Vouchers. This 2003 policy breakthrough permits eligible youth who are in care or who have exited care to apply for up to $5000 per year to cover tuition and related college costs. 

  • Perkins Act. Provides funding for career and technical education and now serves special populations, including youth in foster care. All Perkins Act programs are being made aware of the unique needs of youth in foster care.

  • State Tuition & Fee Waivers. Twenty-three states have tuition and fee waivers for students from foster care and the number continues to grow.

State Collaborative Efforts.
Several states are bringing higher education, child welfare, and community-based organizations together to plan for increased support services for students in public colleges in their states. Two examples: 

  • Michigan. Fostering Success Michigan works to increase the number of youth in foster care in Michigan who attend and complete college. It builds a support network at college campuses and community-based organizations to raise awareness and help organizations respond to the needs of foster youth in college and help them transition to careers.

  • Texas. Texas REACH has taken a ground-up approach, bringing child welfare and higher education together to address specific needs of foster youth pursuing higher education. An annual conference brings several hundred professionals together to identify and strategize around these issues. A recent conference focused on housing needs of foster youth in college led to a housing initiative supported by the Texas Supreme Court.

Increasing College Readiness

College readiness programs, such as TRIO and GEAR UP, are expanding to include youth in care. In Kansas, the GEAR UP grantee is unique in that the program is exclusively for youth currently or formerly in care. Corinne Nilsen, Executive Director at Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP at Wichita State University, described how the program is overcoming a misconception that kids in foster care can’t go to college. 

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP serves about 2,500 youth in foster care in the state, said Nilsen. Social workers identify students in foster care who want to graduate high school and go on to college. After an application and approval process, students are assigned to a staff member who provides an orientation and helps the student prepare a College Access Plan. The plan is reviewed monthly and services are offered to meet plan requirements. 

Before receiving a high school diploma or GED, the program works with the student to identify and apply to potential colleges. Gear Up program scholarships are offered to help cover college costs, in addition to tuition waivers that many youth receive.

Nilsen reported positive outcomes for students participating in the program: 

  • High school and GED completion rates have increased for students in care. 
  • More students in care are enrolling in college.
  • The number of students in care who believe they cannot afford to go to college has decreased. 

One negative trend, according to Nilsen, is the growing need for therapy and life-skills training among foster youth. While Kansas’s privatized foster care system has contracted with mental health providers, she said that therapy is limited and there is always a need for more therapists and more time for foster youth. 

On this last point, Emerson added, “Mental health issues on campuses have increased substantially in recent years. We are not bringing a new issue to colleges. We’re just saying that this is a group that would benefit from therapy services.”

Emerson shared a resource, Supporting Success: Improving Higher Education Outcomes for Children in Foster Care, which calls for supporting the mental health needs of foster youth in higher education settings. He stressed that therapy is part of an effective support model for foster youth pursuing higher education. 


The landscape for youth in care who want to pursue higher education is changing for the better. Laws and policies are addressing challenges that have kept youth in care from considering higher education. Model programs and practices and resources and supports now surround foster youth in many states. These efforts set the stage for early education success and provide tools to help youth in care pursue and complete higher education programs. 

Claire Chiamulera is the editor of CLP.

*The webinar, “From Foster Care to College,” was hosted by the U.S. Department of Education on May 8, 2014.