Foster Youth Not Receiving Needed Support to Succeed at Community College





Research suggests that young people in foster care have low college enrollment and graduation rates despite significant investment in federal and state programs aimed at reducing financial barriers to their postsecondary education. This mixed methods study was conducted to determine the college enrollment and graduation rates among young people in foster care in Illinois and to learn more about the experiences of community college students who are or were in foster care. The vast majority of young people in foster care who pursue postsecondary education enroll in community colleges.

What We Did

  • We obtained college enrollment and graduation records from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) for all young people in Illinois who turned 17 years old while in foster care between 2012 and 2018. We linked the NSC data to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) administrative data and analyzed the linked data.
  • We reviewed documents to understand the landscape of DCFS policies and programs designed to promote postsecondary educational attainment among young people in foster care in Illinois.
  • We interviewed 24 students currently or formerly in foster care who completed at least one semester of community college and five community college administrators. The interviews were transcribed and the transcripts were coded and analyzed.

What We Found

  • About 35% of the young people who turned 17 while in foster care enrolled in college, 86% of those who enrolled in college were community college students, and only 8% of those community college students graduated with a certificate or a degree.
  • Community college students had struggled in high school, felt unprepared for college, and transitioned to college with little professional guidance.
  • Nearly all were required to complete remedial coursework and had a limited understanding of financial aid. Engagement with the child welfare system’s two postsecondary education specialists varied widely.
  • Students want community colleges to provide supports that address their unique needs, but community college administrators don’t know which students need those supports.

What It Means

College enrollment and graduation rates for young people in foster care have changed little over the past decade despite significant federal and state investments in programs designed to remove financial barriers to postsecondary education. Child welfare system administrators should:

  • Minimize school changes and other disruptions to education and increase collaboration with public education systems to ensure that young people are prepared for college when they graduate from high school.
  • Increase awareness of financial aid available through the child welfare system and eliminate barriers to accessing that aid.

Child welfare system administrators and community college administrators should work together to:

  • Develop campus-based supports for students who are or were in foster care.
  • Establish Single Points of Contact for those students at community colleges throughout the state.
  • Provide training to community college personnel on how they can serve as allies to students who are or were in foster care.

Although our study focuses on the community college experiences of young people in a single state who are or were in foster care, its lessons may be relevant to other jurisdictions that are committed to improving postsecondary educational attainment among this population.

Recommended Citation
Havlicek, J. R., Dworsky, A., & Gitlow, E. (2021). Using research to improve postsecondary education outcomes of community college students in foster care. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

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