Greater Investments Needed to Support College Students with Foster Care Backgrounds

Many factors influence the college that students enroll in, and the college they attend plays a role in their likelihood of remaining in college and ultimately earning a degree. Building on previous CalYOUTH reports, this memo takes a closer look at the types of colleges that foster youth enroll in, including average retention rates and the number of semesters completed at those institutions.

What We Did

The focus of the current memo is a sample of youth that met the following criteria: (1) the youth was in care on their 18th birthday, (2) the youth’s 18th birthday was after January 1, 2012 (that is, they were potentially eligible for extended foster care), (3) the youth enrolled in college sometime between their 17th and 21st birthdays, (4) the youth was at least 21 years old at the time of the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data draw in May 2019, and (5) the youth was in child welfare-supervised foster care.  A total of 7,997 youths met these five criteria. We classified the colleges they attended into four main categories: California public 2-year colleges, California public 4-year colleges, California private colleges, and out-of-state colleges. For each college group we present information on the number of foster youth attending these institutions, the gender and racial/ethnic breakdown of attendees, and average retention rates and number of completed semesters for attendees. Finally, we explored the types of colleges that youth subsequently attended after their first college, up to their 21st birthday.

What We Found

The young people in our study first enrolled in 515 distinct college campuses, which includes 217 institutions in California and 298 out-of-state institutions across the U.S. By far, California public 2-year colleges were the most attended institutions, with 82.2% of students first enrolling in one of these schools. About 1 in 10 youth in the sample (9.7%) first enrolled in a California public 4-year college, and few youths first enrolled in a California private college (2.1%) or an out-of-state college (6.2%). Some differences were found by gender and by race. For example, females were overrepresented in 4-year public colleges, and Black youth were underrepresented in some California public 2-year colleges and in University of California (UC) campuses but overrepresented in out-of-state 4-year colleges (about two-fifths of which were Historically Black Colleges and Universities). The average 1-year retention rate among students in the sample was about 44%. The retention rate of in-state public 4-year colleges (about 79%) was about twice that of in-state public 2-year colleges (about 40%). In-state private colleges generally had lower retention rates than their public counterparts, but only about 2% of the sample first attended these institutions. Most youth only attended a single college by age 21, although about one in four subsequently attended another institution (mostly 2-year colleges).

What It Means

We found that California public 2-year colleges were the most common entryway into higher education; indeed, nearly half (45%) of all youth first enrolled in one of 28 2-year public colleges in the state. This memo underscores the need for child welfare agencies and other stakeholders to identify these high-traffic colleges and build robust supports there. This will involve improvements in cross-system data sharing to identify youth with foster care histories on campus, to link these students with available services, and to track their academic progress. These findings can also be used to make a case for greater investments in services that support youth with care backgrounds, such as campus-support programs (CSPs), at these high-traffic colleges.

This study found that the majority of youths with foster care backgrounds did not complete their first two semesters at the first college they enrolled in. These findings underscore that the first marking period is a critical intervention point that requires intentional and robust services. Another important finding is that students who first enrolled in public 4-year colleges fared much better in terms of retention and number of completed semesters than did students who enrolled in public 2-year colleges. Although there are likely differences in the characteristics of students who first enroll in competitive public 4-year colleges and those who enroll in 2-year open-admission colleges, some students may be undermatched and attended a college that is below their potential. Finally, among the youths who attended an additional institution(s), most enrolled in a 2-year college, regardless of the type of college they started in. California has made a longstanding investment in 2-year public colleges as a gateway to Cal State and UC schools, and recent reforms are welcomed as they may benefit underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students, including young people with foster care backgrounds.

Recommended Citation
Okpych, N. J., Courtney, M. E., & Park, S. (2022). Memo from CalYOUTH: Colleges that are most frequently attended by older youth in California foster care. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Download the brief