December 01, 2017

How Attorneys Can Support Postsecondary Success

Kristin Kelly

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.

Older youth in foster care need help pursuing their education goals. This includes identifying services to help them prepare for, enter, and complete postsecondary education if that is their goal. Successful legal advocacy for older youth includes: 

  • supporting youth engagement throughout their case and transition planning; 

  • being aware of available services and supports that help youth pursue and succeed in postsecondary education or vocational goals; and 

  • planning and advocating for educational supports and services throughout the child’s time in foster care and throughout their educational pursuits. 

This article provides an overview on federal laws related to youth engagement and planning for postsecondary education, shares sample education programs and services, and discusses strategies to advocate for educational planning and supports. 

Supporting Youth Engagement

Youth in foster care are often neither invited nor engaged in their case planning and court hearings. Such engagement is essential to their future success. Federal law now places clear requirements on the child welfare and court systems to incorporate youth into child welfare case planning and court hearings. Under the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (Strengthening Families Act, SFA) beginning at age 14, the child welfare agency must document that the youth is consulted when developing the case plan. 

Youth must also be allowed to involve two individuals in case planning who are not a foster parent or part of the casework staff.1 As part of this case-planning process, youth must be provided a list of their rights, including related to “education, health, visitation, and court participation.” The case plan must include a signed acknowledgement that the list of rights has been received and “explained to the child in an age-appropriate way.”2 

Youth engagement in case planning and court proceedings is essential. Federal law requires the court to “consult with the child in an age-appropriate manner regarding the proposed permanency and transition plans.”3 Advocates must ensure the child’s perspective, including their views on education and postsecondary opportunities, is shared with the court, and also ensure the child attends court if desired. To help youth fully participate, it is critical to prepare them for court proceedings, give them the opportunity to share their views, and connect with them afterwards to ensure they understand the court’s actions and orders. While court involvement is critical for all children, it is especially critical for older youth to ensure their transition needs, including those related to education, are met. 

Encouraging youth to engage in education decision making and planning helps them take active roles in their educational futures and gives direction and guidance to the professionals and adults advocating for them. Participating in court proceedings, school meetings, the special education process, and planning for postsecondary education or jobs helps youth advocate for themselves. One example of a publication to support empowering youth in their education planning is the KnowHow2Go Mentor Workbook.4 

Ensuring Appropriate Transition Planning 

While federal law previously required child welfare agencies to include “transition planning” (often referred to as an “independent living plan”) in a child’s case plan beginning at age 16, the SFA made some critical changes. First, recognizing that 16 is not early enough to start planning for adulthood, the SFA now requires that, beginning at age 14, the case plan must contain a written description of programs and services that will help a child prepare to transition from foster care to successful adulthood.5 The court must also make findings about services the child needs to transition from foster care to adulthood.6 Finally, for youth with the permanency plan of Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), the court must document that the youth has regular and ongoing opportunities to participate in age or developmentally appropriate activities.7 

When helping a youth develop a transition plan beginning at age 14, attorneys should ensure the plan:

  • is youth-directed, and includes concrete details about the youth’s educational goals, as well as physical and mental health care and housing;

  • addresses efforts the agency is making for the youth to develop permanent relationships with caring adults and relatives, including siblings; 

  • details services the youth needs to prepare for adulthood, including daily living activities and an understanding of community resources and public benefits. 

  • identifies outcomes and timeframes, and the specific individual or agency responsible for the child completing each element of the plan. 

For an example of a tool for youth-directed transition planning, see the Transition Toolkit8 developed by FosterClub.

In addition to the transition planning starting by age 14, the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (Fostering Connections Act, FCA) requires the child welfare agency to develop a “transition plan” within 90 days before a youth is discharged from care. The plan must be developed under the direction of the child and include specific options for housing, health insurance, education, local mentoring opportunities and continuing support services, and workforce supports and employment services.

The SFA also requires that for youth leaving care at age 18 or older, the youth “is not discharged from care without receiving” the original or certified copy of the following documents: birth certificate, social security card, state identification card/driver’s license, health insurance information, including any cards needed to access care, and medical records.10 This plan is often referred to as a “Discharge Plan” and should be a final check of all services, documents, and supports needed before a child exits foster care. This requirement, coupled with the IV-E requirement that youth exiting care must be provided a copy of their education records, ensures that youth have all of the documentation they may need to pursue future education opportunities after leaving care. 

Because the child welfare agency must develop the 90-day transition plan as part of its case review requirements, developing and presenting this plan must be integrated into permanency review hearings. Involving courts in developing and reviewing transition plans ensures accountability and, most importantly, prevents youth who need services from falling through the cracks. 

Each required plan creates an important tool for advocates and attorneys. Viewing these two plans as steps in the process towards transitioning to adulthood helps both fulfill their true purpose. The child welfare agency must actively engage and empower youth through the transition-planning process, and include all individuals who may provide insight or support, including teachers, guidance counselors, and other school staff. These requirements provide opportunities for attorneys to enforce youth’s rights: 

  • participating in developing all plans, and ensuring they are detailed and based on the client’s needs; 

  • ensuring all plans engage and empower youth; 

  • encouraging the child welfare agency to incorporate educational planning into case planning; and 

  • ensuring the federal requirement that court findings be made about transition services is followed and findings are sufficiently detailed to gauge agency compliance. 

Accessing Educational Programs and Services

Transition to Adulthood or Independent Living Programs

Since the 2008 Fostering Connections Act, states have been permitted to receive federal reimbursement for the costs of extending foster care to age 21.11 The option to receive federal reimbursement past age 18 provides an important incentive to states to extend care for youth over age 18, which has a positive impact on the ability of students to pursue and achieve their postsecondary and vocational aspirations. To date, 26 states have extended foster care beyond age 18. 

All states receive federal Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (Chafee Program) funds, which support older youth and young adults in foster care as they transition to independence. The intent of the Chafee Program is to identify youth who are likely to remain in foster care and help them: 

  • transition out of the system successfully by obtaining education and employment services; 
  • prepare for postsecondary 
  • education; 
  • obtain personal and emotional support; and 
  • obtain life-skills education and support. 

States have wide flexibility in creating their state program and determining eligibility. Common program elements include: 

  • assistance obtaining a high school diploma or GED; 
  • career exploration, training, job placement, retention; 
  • training in daily living skills, including finances; 
  • substance abuse prevention; 
  • preventive health activities; 
  • education, training and employment services; 
  • postsecondary training and education; and 
  • mentoring and positive interactions with adults. 

To learn more about your state’s Chafee Program, contact your state Independent Living Coordinator.12 

Postsecondary Prep Programs

The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act included several amendments to increase foster students’ access to postsecondary education. The law now makes youth in foster care (including youth who have left foster care after reaching age 13), automatically eligible for all TRIO programs. The federal TRIO programs support at-risk junior high and high school students to graduate from high school, enter college, and complete their degrees. These programs include Talent Search, Upward Bound, Student Support Services, Educational Opportunity Centers, Staff Development Activities, and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP). The law also clarified that Student Support Services funds can be used for securing temporary housing during breaks in the academic year for students in or aging out of foster care. Attorneys should know which TRIO programs exist in their jurisdiction, and use these provisions to ensure youth access these services. 

Many states also have college preparation programs, including those specifically for students in foster care. The FirstStar Academies13 program is a four-year program for high school foster youth that includes four residential summers on a university campus, and monthly sessions during each school year. Currently, 13 campuses across the country support FirstStar Academies. 

Financial Aid, Tuition Waivers, and Scholarships

Higher education is expensive, and many youth in care lack family members or other adults who can help pay their tuition, co-sign their college loans, or provide them a free place to live while they attend college or during school breaks. Supports are available to assist these students achieve their goals and attorneys must know what is available in their states. 

FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application used by Federal Student Aid, an office in the U.S. Department of Education. The application is used to determine the type and amount of federal financial aid (grants, work-study, and loans) for which each student is eligible. 

Further, many state colleges, universities, and career schools use FAFSA information to determine eligibility for their assistance and scholarship programs. If a youth is considered “independent,” only the youth’s income —not that of a parent or guardian—is considered when determining the student’s eligibility for financial aid. In most cases, this means the youth will be eligible for the maximum financial aid available. Federal law makes clear that an “independent student” includes a youth who is “an orphan, in foster care, or a ward of the court at any time when the individual was 13 years of age or older.” This means many former and current youth in care are eligible for federal financial assistance. For tips on filling out questions on the FAFSA, and how to identify a student as “independent,” see this publication14 or visit

Tuition Waivers. To make college and vocation schools more affordable, several states have “waiver programs” that “waive” the tuition and fees for current and former foster youth at colleges and vocational schools under certain conditions. Nearly all states with tuition waiver programs limit them to state-funded colleges and vocational schools within the state. Generally, tuition waivers apply to all forms of postsecondary education— two- or four-year schools, vocational and technical programs, and community colleges. However, state waiver programs vary regarding the types of education programs included. For state-specific information about tuition waiver programs, see the National Map from Fostering Success Michigan.15 

Education Training Vouchers. Federal funding is provided to states through the Education and Training Vouchers (ETV) program. This program provides funding up to $5,000 per year for postsecondary education to youth who have aged out of foster care or entered guardianships or adoption after age 16. To learn more about the ETV program, visit Foster Care to Success.16 Advocates should know of available scholarship programs and tuition supports for older clients. To learn about your state’s ETV program, and other tuition voucher or waiver programs and services, attorneys should contact the state Independent Living/Chafee Program Coordinator.17

On-Campus Support Programs and Services

 Many two- and four-year colleges and universities have campus-based support programs to assist students who were formerly in foster care with financial aid, mental health services, housing issues, and other supports. The best way to learn if a college, university, or school has an on-campus program is to contact the financial aid or student affairs office to learn what assistance they provide. Fostering Success Michigan18 maintains a National Postsecondary Support Map19 of all four-year campus-based support programs. California College Pathways20 has many resources on postsecondary education for students in or formerly in foster care, including a Foster Youth Educational Planning Guide.21 


Students in foster care deserve educational advocacy and mentorship from the adults working to support their transition to adulthood. Attorneys should make it a priority to engage their clients in educational planning, stay current on available educational supports and services, and ensure clients meet their educational goals. 

Kristin Kelly, JD, is assistant program director, education projects, at the ABA Center on Children and the Law. Kristin is a staff member of the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, a project at the Center.

Supporting Educational Goals of Older Youth in Foster Care 

  • Get the student’s education records. Access the student’s education records, obtaining a court order if needed. Check for gaps, and ensure that the student is on-track educationally. Intervene if advocacy is needed. 

  • Engage with the youth. Work with the youth to identify his or her educational goals. Think about the youth’s current needs and what is needed to prepare for future school and post school success. Ensure youth have exposure and access to education and career opportunities, role models, mentors, and strong education advocates. 

  • Stay current on available educational services and supports. Ensure youth have clear information and concrete help obtaining and completing admission and financial aid documents. Explain to clients that they qualify as independent students for FAFSA. Be aware of what tuition waivers or other aid programs may be available in your state, and work with the child welfare agency and/or state Independent Living Coordinator to identify the best services and supports for the youth. Watch funding for new education and training voucher programs. 

  • Use case planning and transition planning requirements to support educational goals. Advocate for the youth and collaborate with the child welfare agency to ensure case and transition planning are youth-directed and focus on educational planning and supports. Participate in all meetings and advocate in court when necessary to ensure appropriate services. Ensure the youth has access to all educational documents and records. 

  • Advocate to extend foster care beyond age 18. Ensure youth have access to academic, social, and emotional supports while completing their postsecondary education. Advocate for the court and agency to extend jurisdiction so youth can receive support and protection while pursuing postsecondary education or employment. If this is not available in your state, ensure the youth is adequately prepared for the transition 


1. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(C)(iv). 

2. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675a(b)(1) & (b)(2).

3. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(C)(iii).


5. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(1)(D). 

6. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(C)(i).

7. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675a(a)(3)(B).



10. 42 U.S.C.A. § 675(5)(I).

11. 42 U.S.C § 675(8)(B).