Challenges in Rigorously Evaluating College Success Programs for Students Who Experienced Foster Care
Policymakers’ efforts to expand access to postsecondary education among young people in foster care and to increase their postsecondary educational attainment have led to the creation of both state and federal programs that address financial barriers to pursuing a college degree. In addition to these programs, which may make college more affordable for young people transitioning from foster care to college, a growing number of college success programs provide students who have experienced foster care with wraparound services and supports to help them succeed in school and graduate. Despite these efforts, little progress has been made in building the evidence base for programs that improve the postsecondary educational outcomes of transition-age young people in foster care. Thus, we conducted a formative evaluation of one college success program—the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University—to learn more about its implementation and to assess its readiness for rigorous evaluation in the future.
What we did
We conducted a pair of site visits to learn about (1) the program’s logic model; (2) the way program leaders, frontline staff, program partners, and other stakeholders understand the program; (3) program participants’ experiences with the program; and (4) program or administrative data we could use. During the site visits, we interviewed program leaders, frontline staff, university partners, and other stakeholders and conducted focus groups with student participants. We also analyzed program and administrative data on the characteristics of Seita Scholars, Seita Scholars’ interactions with campus coaches, and Seita Scholars’ academic outcomes.
What we found
We found that (1) the Seita Scholars program could reasonably be expected to achieve its intended outcomes; (2) the program’s implementation is largely consistent with its logic model; and (3) the data needed to measure service provision and key outcomes are available. However, it would be extremely difficult to identify a sufficient number of students who are eligible for but not participating in the Seita Scholars program and not receiving similar services from another program.
What it means
A rigorous evaluation of the Seita Scholars program at Western Michigan University is probably not feasible. Evaluators who wish to measure the impacts of similar college success programs will need to consider designs other than the traditional individual-level randomized controlled trial.
Supporting College Students Transitioning Out of Foster Care