Access to success for former foster care community college students

Can you imagine moving from one stranger’s home to another stranger’s home throughout most of your adolescent years? What about transferring to three or more different schools in one academic year multiple times?

The image presented depicts a fraction of the collage constructed by former foster care youth illustrating barriers impeding their ability to succeed academically. This is evident with the scarce number of high school graduates, and the disproportionate number of youth from foster care transitioning and graduating from postsecondary institutions.

While a postsecondary education is designed to equip former foster care youth with the knowledge and skills to improve their livelihood, their persistence-to-completion rate at community colleges is alarmingly low. This at-risk student population is socio-economically challenged, first-generation, disabled, academically underprepared and likely to drop out or not return after the first term.

At the same, they may be in jeopardy of being incarcerated, homeless or pregnant. The “open door” access to transition services for former foster care youth at the community college is identified as their best option to establish a quality life. The services provided by student service professionals during the assimilation process helps ease the transition phase at community colleges.

Early connections yield best results

A key element of the transition phase is establishing early rapports and connections with staff. This occurs during new-student orientations, enrollment workshops, financial-aid advising and course schedule appointments. These opportunities influence retention for former foster care youth, especially since they are transitioning into unfamiliar territory.

Former foster care youth require mental stability in order to be successful at the postsecondary level — lowering stress by absolving adverse encounters by accommodating their needs in and out of the classroom. This can be achieved by designating and assigning first-time foster care alumni students to specific counselors or academic advisors at new-student orientation.

Intentional interactions with student service professionals knowledgeable of updated foster care policies and emancipated foster care research and who are genuinely concerned about their well-being create a welcoming atmosphere for former foster care students. Because these advisors are trained and knowledgeable of foster care services, they can guide students to specific accommodations, such as the federal John H. Chafee Foster Care Independent Living Program, the Educational and Training Vouchers Program for Youths Aging out of Foster Care, foster care scholarships, mentoring programs and federally funded TRIO student support services, in addition to community and campus-specific programs designed to increase foster care alumni well-being.

By connecting them to needed services during the transition phase former foster care youth are enabled to persist to credential completion.

Creating a sense of belonging

The social integration process for this at-risk student population is finding a sense of belonging on campus, including learning about programs dedicated to assist them at the front door. Early interactions and conversations with compassionate staff members help ease the transition phase and influence retention. As a result, they do not feel marginalized and begin to share life goals and experiences with others.

In many instances, once a former foster care student connects with someone who will motivate them to complete, they are more likely to seek this person out continuously for more guidance.

Limited community college resources coupled with the student success agenda is the impetus for redesigning, reinventing and resetting the approach to increase credential attainment for former foster care community college students. The efficacy and range of services provided to this student population significantly impacts how they matriculate through postsecondary institutions.

With access to success in mind, an informative assimilation process removing adversity by accommodating former foster care community college students’ needs positively impacts their ability to persist to credential attainment.

About the Author

Ralph Murphy II
is dean of student development and success at Blue Mountain Community College in Oregon.
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