Penn’s Field Center Advocates Changing Higher Ed Policy for Former Foster Youth

It’s a momentous day when a foster child graduates from high school.  But, now what?

One center at the University of Pennsylvania is working to address the needs of this under-the-radar population by stimulating a shift in higher education policy.

To inform higher education decision-makers on educational outcomes for former foster care youth, the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research held an August colloquium of 50 invitees. Participants included foster care professionals, university administrators and educational advocates. A representative also attended from Penn’s Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

Foster Care to College: Strategies for Success” identified the unique challenges often faced by foster youth who attend college and offered suggestions that provide support.

Supporters of this movement and event organizers say mentorship programs, easily identified liaisons in key university departments and support groups can all contribute to increasing the numbers of former foster youth who are able to complete their degrees. 

“Former foster youth will encounter certain difficulties that other students are not worried about,” Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director at the Field Center, says.  “They often lack a support system to help them when they’re feeling discouraged and don’t have resources that others take for granted."

Three college students from foster care who attend Western Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University shared their experiences at the colloquium.

“One participant said it is hard to focus on classes,” Schilling Wolfe explains, “when you have to focus on how you will eat and how you will survive. These are some of the unique challenges that can be addressed ahead of time through forward-thinking, proactive planning by a college’s administration.”

The event also included presentations from legal experts like Jennifer Pokempner, supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center and adjunct faculty member at Penn’s Law School, as well as researchers like Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice

Greeson says that, while the data on college completion rates for foster youth are important, the presence of youth aspirations and expectations to attend college in the first place are of equal importance.

“Studies have found the vast majority of foster youth want to pursue an education beyond high school, but only a fraction of them actually do. Close to 100% of foster youth will say that they want to attend college, but then the reality of how many actually do and then those who follow-through to obtain a degree is quite different,” Greeson explains. “It’s interesting to consider what accounts for this very large discrepancy, and lack of supportive relationships with caring adults is one of the answers, with respect to kids actually finishing.”

Bringing the perspectives of former foster youth attending college together with critical information from researchers and experts created a much-needed sense of urgency.

Based on the feedback they have received, organizers say the participants left the colloquium with a sense of purpose, ready to start working on behalf of this invisible population. 

Hoping to build on the momentum from the event, the Field Center plans to convene a workgroup to explore how such programming can be brought to Philadelphia.

A video of the colloquium is available online at the Field Center’s Website.

Foster Care to College” was sponsored by the Field Center, the Philadelphia Foundation and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

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