Each year in the United States there are nearly half a million children and youth in foster care, and approximately 26,000 older foster youth will age out of the system annually. Only 20% of youth who transition out of foster care enroll in postsecondary education and less than 11% go on to earn a postsecondary credential.
Increasingly, policymakers and practitioners are recognizing the need to connect youth from foster care to postsecondary opportunities and success. On Wednesday, May 14, 2014, the American Youth Policy Forum hosted a Webinar titled “Reaching Postsecondary Success: Pathways for Youth in Transition from Foster Care.” Speakers included Michael Leach, Director of the Office of Independent Living at Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services; Mary Jo Sekelsky, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the University of Michigan, Flint (UM-Flint); and Gabriella G., a current UM-Flint student and foster youth.
Tennessee’s Independent Living (IL) program exists to assist youth who are transitioning out of foster care and into adulthood. In order to be eligible for extended foster care benefits, youth must maintain academic eligibility in a postsecondary program. Leach noted a high number of academically ineligible youth as motivation for re-thinking the program’s internal and external strategies. Using surveys and staff development, the IL program re-focused efforts on engaging young people in the future planning process. Leach stated that simply acknowledging a young person’s potential to be successful in college can have tremendous effects on their outcomes.
With recommendations from the state’s Youth Transitions Advisory Council, the IL program is working externally with colleges and universities on several key activities to encourage postsecondary access and completion for youth from foster care: 1) subsidizing the cost of attendance not covered by other funding and scholarships; 2) keeping dorms and residential halls open over holidays and vacation when youth in foster care have no place to go; and,3) working with several workforce training programs to identify youth from foster care and move them up the lengthy waiting lists. This allows those youth to begin the program faster and maintain eligibility for extended foster care benefits.
Leach re-iterated the importance of partnerships with programs that are responsive to the needs of youth in foster care as a core element of success.
MPowering My Success
The MPowering My Success program at UM-Flint is a partnership between the University, the Michigan Department of Human Services, and Ennis Center for Children whose goal is to ensure access to postsecondary education for youth in transition from foster care. When describing the reason for establishing the MPowering My Success Program. Sekelsky mentioned that “the foster care population was in need of a college recruitment and admissions structure that would meet them where they are at.” Sekelsky described MPowering My Success as a resource for students who do not typically have access to the things they need most. With a small but highly qualified staff of case managers, MPowering My Success provides assistance for students from foster care with everything from course scheduling and financial management to year-round housing, employment, and child care. Students are assessed upon entry to determine their needs. Program staff use this information to place students academically and counsel them. Sekelsky pointed out that a unique feature of the program is its physical location. Housed within UM-Flint’s Office of Financial Aid, she believes this encourages collaboration that allows for more streamlined student services.
Gabriella was removed from her home at a young age because her parents were both drug addicts and dealers. By the time she was in high school, she was determined to attend the University of Michigan. “Nothing in the foster care system has even begun to prepare for the world that we come into,” said Gabriella of her experience. She had little support through the application process until she came in contact with the financial aid office at the University of Michigan, Flint. When she told them of her status as a former foster youth, they connected her with the MPowering My Success Program. Since then, she has benefitted from academic counseling and the support of a clinically trained mentor. Program staff also helped her quickly find housing when they learned that her living arrangements were unsafe. Gabriella is in contact with her mentor several times each week, and has been able to find a job on campus with the help of MPowering My Success.
Gabriella plans to double-major in applied psychology and social work. Of the MPowering My Success Program she said, “I really just feel like I couldn’t have succeeded at the University of Michigan without this program.”
Erin Russ is a program associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.
 Wolanin, Tom (2005). Higher Education Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care: A Primer for Policymakers. D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy.
 Dworsky, A. & Pérez, A.(2009). Helping former foster youth graduate from college: Campus support programs in California and Washington State. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.