Helping Youth Transitioning out of Foster Care Succeed in College: What We Learned at the Center for Fostering Success

Published oct. 21, 2015

Participants working to help improve success outcomes for foster youth held a debrief session outdoors in Kalamazoo, MI.

Young people who are transitioning from foster care aren’t faring well in college. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Chicago, revealed that only 6% of former foster youth had earned a two- or four-year degree by age 24. Those not in college may be in jail—34% who had left foster care at age 17 or 18 reported being arrested by age 19. Such dismal outcomes speak volumes about the lack of systems put in place to help former foster youth make a successful transition to adulthood. Simply put, as a society we are not keeping the promise to provide a quality education to all, including former foster youth so that they can realize their full potential in college and beyond.

While the numbers are currently bleak, educators, policymakers, funders, and advocates are learning that effective supports are available for young people leaving the foster care system and transitioning to postsecondary education. Jobs for the Future recently organized a design studio, hosted by the Center for Fostering Success at Western Michigan University (WMU), as part of an initiative supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to implement Back on Track designs targeting former foster youth in eight communities around the country. The Center operates three programs:

  • Fostering Success Michigan, a statewide effort that builds the education to career pipeline for young people ages 12-25 in Michigan who lived in foster care
  • Seita Scholars, campus-based support services to WMU students that spent at least some of their adolescent years in foster care
  • Fostering Success Coach Training program, a skill-based approach teaching professionals how to partner with young people from foster care to advance each student’s education and career goals

During the design studio, teams of practitioners who are creating programs to reengage former foster youth in their communities across the United States, joined staff from the Center for Fostering Success and Seita Scholars (WMU students from foster care) for observation, reflection, discussions, and working sessions. The group learned what it takes to create a culture and a learning environment that enable former foster youth to thrive. And thrive they do. The graduation rate for the 2009-10 Seita Scholars cohort was 38%. In the 2011-12 cohort of Seita Scholars, just under 53% of students were on track to graduate from WMU.

Significant takeaways for design studio participants include that the Center’s bridge to college and support programming are successful largely due to: 

  • The commitment of top leadership at WMU starting with the president
  • Committed staff who work in a coordinated team dedicated to helping students succeed
  • WMU's community-wide approach that leverages resources from various partners, which is definitely value added for students
  • Partnering with students to learn about their needs and develop strategies to help them thrive

The Center for Fostering Success’ promising outcomes prove that effective programs exist for former foster youth. The longer-term considerations are now about how we carefully adapt proven interventions to the commitment to go to scale. We must do this to change the odds for this vulnerable group of young people.