Serving Special Populations: A Study of Former Foster Youth at California Community Colleges

Article excerpt

Community colleges nationwide are tasked with meeting the needs of a wide range of students, many of whom come to higher education with financial, educational, and social disadvantages. Developing strategies to effectively serve these students and promote their academic and personal success can be challenging and resource-intensive. The study presented here examines one such special population: former foster youth at community colleges in California. Though the findings relate specifically to former foster youth, the recommended strategies can be applied to a variety of struggling student populations. This study documents the experiences and needs of former foster youth enrolled in California Community Colleges, investigates the successes and challenges of community colleges responding to those needs, and makes recommendations to improve the educational success of former foster youth. To achieve these outcomes, the study employed a mixed-methods design that included a survey of community college staff throughout California, a statewide survey of former foster youth students, and interviews with the college staff who works directly with former foster youth at 12 selected colleges. The findings indicate that, although many California Community Colleges have made strides toward meeting the needs of students from special populations, additional support is needed to assist these students, including former foster youth, in both succeeding academically and achieving economic security and personal fulfillment. Specifically, there is a need for improved data collection and program evaluation, additional assistance with financial aid and housing, the creation of a broad network of support within each college, the utilization of a case management approach, and increased resource development to support programs that serve former foster youth. The full report on the research study that was the basis for this article can be found at www.rpgroup.org/css/FosterYouth.html.

Challenges Faced by Former Foster Youth in California

Every year, approximately 4,000 youths emancipate from California's foster care system upon reaching the age of 18, a 44% increase since 1998. While there are services that assist former foster youth in transitioning to independent living, most still face challenges securing housing, finding employment, and achieving financial security.

While 70% of foster youth nationwide want to pursue post-secondary education or training, only 10% actually enroll in college (Emerson, 2007). Moreover, only 4% of foster youth ultimately attain a degree or certificate, with 2% achieving a bachelor's degree or higher (Needell, Cuccaro-Alamin, Brookhart, Jackman, & Shlonsky, 2002). The organization Honoring Emancipated Youth (2009) helps explain these statistics:

Education is important to former foster youth. However, while a majority of foster youth want to attend college, only a tiny minority earn any type of degree or certificate after high school. The experience of being in foster care, multiple disruptions in placements and relationships and lack of opportunities as a child continue to affect youth after they emancipate. Once emancipated, youth experience hardships that affect their ability to succeed in school, such as lack of affordable housing, difficulty maintaining permanent supportive relationships and obtaining jobs in a rough economy, (p. 1)

In 2007, the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego, School of Law reported that "not surprisingly, the majority of former foster youth fail to achieve self-sufficiency" (p. i). The report further notes that 65% of foster youth do not have a place to live upon emancipation and 51 % are unemployed.

Growing up in the foster care system poses a broad range of educational barriers unique to this cohort. California Youth Connection (CYC) observes that foster youth, often moved from placement to placement, must cope with a lack of consistency in school curricula, difficulties in securing quality health care, and challenges in developing and maintaining positive and trusting relationships with adults. …