July 3 — 2:56 pm, 2018

Helping foster youth attain college and persist there

Nationally, just one of five foster youth attend college, and they are eight times less likely to earn a degree.

Michelle Lopez is Community College of Philadelphia's coordinator for community engagement and civic leadership initiatives. She has launched a program to make sure foster youth are aware of the help available to them. (Photo courtesy of CCP)

The date was Dec. 2, 2017, and the last thing on 16-year-old Joyline Jefferson’s mind was college.

The family had split months earlier due to financial issues and “everybody went their separate ways,” said Jefferson. She and three of her seven siblings scattered, Jefferson at first to the home of one of her teachers and – on that December day – to a foster home.

Nationally, only 20 percent of youth in foster care attend college, and they are up to eight times less likely to earn a college degree compared with the general population.

So judging by those statistics alone, Jefferson, of Yeadon, now a 17-year-old senior, was unlikely to go beyond high school graduation.

But thanks to new programs specially geared toward youth like Jefferson –  they are finding college more than a pipe dream. In fact, Jefferson now has sophomore status at West Chester University.

Traditionally, “most of them don’t even get past the first year,” said Sarah Wasch, program manager at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Field Center is working with eight area colleges and universities in a Foster Care to College program to provide the support that foster youth need to get to and through college.

Programs at four colleges – Cabrini University, Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University, and West Chester University – started last fall.

Four more – Chestnut Hill College; Manor College, in Jenkintown; Montgomery County Community College; and Penn State/Abington – will join in September.

In addition to financial hurdles facing all students from low-income families, Wasch and others say foster youth often face additional hurdles stemming from the lack of family support and the trauma that got them into foster care in the first place.

“They may never even have seen someone go to work consistently,” says Maddy Day, director of outreach and training at Western Michigan University’s Center for Fostering Success, a pioneer in helping foster youth navigate the higher education system.

Allison Mootz, dean of students at two-year Manor College, says they may also have no one in their personal life who knows the value of college.

Jefferson says that she had a good foster parent, but that the previous inconsistency in her life “makes it very stressful. … I always have a plan B or a plan C. Anything can happen. People change their mind.”

But when one of her behavioral health workers, a West Chester alumna, took her to an open house there, she was impressed by the help that she could receive, including on-campus housing 365 days a year.

Tori Nuccio, who heads the Promise Program for foster and homeless youth at West Chester University, says that simply having a “point person” like her for foster youth on campus is a major step forward.

“They want somebody they can trust and build a relationship with,” she says. “They can’t pick up a phone and call Mom and Dad.”

The university has started a food pantry that also includes professional work attire and school supplies, and also has monthly program dinners. The pantry is partly staffed with graduate-student interns pursuing master’s degrees in social work.

Young people in the program also get priority placement for federal work-study grants.

“You feel that you’re not alone,” Jefferson says.

Nuccio says that the program has about 30 students. Cabrini University has about 11 students who were in foster care, making them “small enough that word of mouth helps,” says Christine Lysionek, vice president for student life.

Lysionek strongly believes that besides offering programs directed at foster youth, universities also need to identify some foster youth even before they get to college and let high schools know which colleges have programs to support foster youth.

She has connected with some students through the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Although word of mouth may be enough for schools as small as Cabrini, it isn’t for the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), where Michelle Lopez reports that about 140 students with experience in the foster care system are enrolled.

Lopez, CCP’s coordinator for community engagement and civic leadership initiatives, has launched a virtual marketing campaign at the college to make sure students, faculty, and staff are aware of the program.

(Program leaders like Lopez generally find out about the students when they say they are from the foster-care system on their financial aid forms, but not all identify themselves as such.)

“What really separates students with foster experience is the lack of stability from not having your natural family,” she says. “It creates trust issues. The students come in with an extra level of distrust and that can be challenging for the staff.”

The campaign includes a symbol for the program, Fostering Caring Connections – a yellow heart above two hands reaching for each other. The symbol is placed at the entrance of offices where at least one person has been trained in issues frequently affecting foster youth.

She says that more than 40 faculty and staff have been trained in this area.

Although the Philadelphia area programs are too new to show results in terms of students graduating, Day reports that similar programs in Michigan have proven successful.

Since 2012, more than 150 students with experience in foster care have graduated from post-secondary institutions with the help of campus support programs under the Fostering Success Michigan project.

Day also serves as a consultant for the local programs and has provided training sessions for staff at all eight of the colleges working with the Field Center.

Among her recommendations is that colleges and universities select “champions” in the areas of housing, finance, career services, and academics for students with experience in the foster care system.

“It’s also going to require a strong effort on the pre-college side, getting [the students] college-ready,” she adds.

All told, Day says, 14 states have some type of foster care coordinating program.

And Pennsylvania would join them under a bill now in the state House.

The bill would create a tuition and fee waiver program for youth from the foster care system attending state-supported institutions.

In testimony before the House Education Committee on May 22, Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of the Field Center, said that 28 other states already have tuition and fee waiver programs for foster youth.

The institutions would also be required to name one employee as a point of contact for the students and to evaluate student retention rates.

“If we don’t support the success of foster youth once they enroll in college,” Wolfe said,“we are setting them up for failure and additional stress and disappointment. Retention is just as important as recruitment.”

Reporting on issues related to youth in and exiting the child welfare system is made possible by a generous grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund.

The Notebook is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at https://brokeinphilly.org and follow us on twitter @BrokeInPhilly.

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