Foster youth desire college, study shows, but face roadblocks to learning

A solid education is considered the foundation for a productive future, but for teens in foster care, education beyond high school is rarely a reality. In fact, a Westat study found that only 44 percent of 18-year-olds leaving the independent living program of the foster care system completed high school.

But despite common thought, this dismal percentage is not due to a lack of educational aspirations among teens in foster care.

According to a recent study at the George Warren Brown (GWB) School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, a surprisingly high percentage — 70 percent — of teens in the foster care system have a desire to attend college.

Study shows 70 percent of teens in the foster care system have a desire to attend college.
Study shows 70 percent of teens in the foster care system have a desire to attend college.

“This high percentage shows the need for increased educational support for teens in foster care,” says Wendy Auslander, Ph.D., professor at GWB and co-author of the study. “These youths have the desire to continue their education through college, but they are met with a number of problems throughout their education, including a high incidence of having to change school mid year.”

Curtis McMillen, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at GWB, is lead author of this study, which appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of the journal Child Welfare. The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Unlike other studies on teens in the foster care system, this study, “Educational Experiences and Aspirations of Older Youth in Foster Care,” examines what happens during their time in school rather than just revealing the high school completion rates of teens in foster care.

“Information about the education aspirations and experiences of youth is vital to legislators, child welfare workers, and administrators trying to improve the lives of foster youth as they struggle to build adult lives,” notes Auslander.

Researchers studied 262 St. Louis County, Mo., youth ages 15 to 19 in the foster care system. Of the group, 54 percent resided in a group home or residential facility, 23 percent lived with relatives other than their parents, 16 percent lived with foster families, 3 percent were in an inpatient psychiatric facility and 3 percent were in other situations.

The data from the study was collected for the Bridges to Life Options Program, a GWB study that developed and evaluated an HIV prevention program that included education planning sessions and savings accounts to increase the future orientation of youths in foster care.

In addition to the 70 percent of the teens reporting a desire to attend college, 19 percent of these teens planned to further their education beyond college.

“These aspirations may serve as important strengths on which planners can build educational and behavioral programs,” says Auslander. “If youth want the better lives that educational achievement can bring, they may be motivated to participate in programs to improve their academic achievement. These youth also need to have easy access to these programs.”

School experiences

The teens also reported their experiences in school. The following are the percentage of teens reporting that they experienced a particular event at least once since seventh grade.

  • Mid-year school changes since seventh grade – 63%
  • Suspension from school – 73%
  • Expulsion from school – 16%
  • Repeated a grade – 25%
  • Failed a class – 58%
  • Skipped a day of school – 45%
  • Physical fights with students – 29%
  • Verbal fights with teachers – 28%
  • Physical fights with teachers – 2%

“The high educational failure rates from this study suggest the need for intense remedial education and tutoring services,” says Auslander. “Efforts should be made to have each foster child’s academic need assessed regularly and take measures to help these youth meet academic goals.

“There is also a need for informed educational youth advocates who can help place youth in the appropriate schools where they will be able to remain even if they change living arrangements.”

In addition to McMillen and Auslander, the other co-authors of this study are Diane Elze, Ph.D., assistant professor at GWB, Tony White, doctoral candidate at GWB, and Ronald Thompson, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Columbia University.

Auslander thinks that this study shows the need for increased collaboration between child welfare agencies and educational institutions.

“Educational issues need to be addressed in a system of care that also attends to mental health, behavioral and emotional needs,” Auslander adds.