May is National Foster Care Month, a time to highlight the role each of us can play in enhancing the lives of children and youth in foster care. For more than a century, the Children’s Bureau has worked to assist children and youth in foster care, engage youth in decisions that affect their lives, and support those who help these children. It’s a sobering fact to think that 400,000 children and youth are in foster care at any given time—in 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care.
And this is a topic that hits close to home for us at CampusLogic. Our CEO Gregg Scoresby’s family has been actively involved in the foster community here in Arizona for about six years. Deeply knowledgeable about the struggles students face accessing higher education, I sat down with Gregg to talk about the unique challenges that foster children face as they pursue higher education—and his ideas for solutions.
Amy: Your wife is a huge reason you’re involved with the foster care program in Arizona, what inspired her to get involved?
Gregg: My wife Jill is truly amazing. She is a social worker by training and from the time we were dating, she always talked about being involved with foster care or adoption in some way. We also were reading a lot in the local newspaper about the extreme shortage in the number of available foster families. At the same time, there were a lot of Child Protective Services reports going under investigated simply due to the agency’s bandwidth and resources. We knew that if we could make a difference, we had to try. After researching how you become a foster parent, we took the next step to get licensed. We’ve taken in six kids at various times, and I can’t say enough about how this is all because of Jill’s amazing selflessness and belief in giving back.
Amy: Many foster children face challenges around accessibility to education. What are some of the unique forces working against them?
Gregg: There’s a high correlation between drug use and the number of kids in foster care. Children often end up in foster care because parents have made some bad decisions that have led to them being unable to care for their own children. Those bad decisions have often meant that, pre-foster care, many of these kids go home to an environment where no one is reading to them, no one is making them feel that education is to be valued—or even that they have great value. The average foster child will switch homes three times—the proportion of children experiencing more than two placement settings increased with more time spent in foster care—and have a low level of continuity with the people in their lives. All of these things translate into educational difficulties.
Amy: It sounds like the challenges that foster kids encounter that keep them from being successful within the education system often started years and years ago, far before they entered the foster system?
Gregg: Absolutely. Foster kids often experience a total lack of belonging in higher education—they simply don’t know how they fit in, because no one has ever told them. No one has prioritized it. Foster kids are two times as likely to be absent from school than other children. Each time a child changes schools it can result in a loss of four to six months of academic progress. Add to that the fact that 34% of 17-18 year olds in foster care have experienced five-plus school changes, and they’ve lost more than a year and a half of progress in that time.
My dad was a psychologist with a PhD in family counseling. We talked all the time about my future, education options, about basic things like feelings and emotions. Foster kids don’t get that kind of experience. They hear things like “someone’s coming to get you from group home to take you to a new place.” Or they hear “We don’t know your foster parents’ names yet, but please say goodbye to your friends now because we’ve got to go meet them.” Then these foster kids have to fit into new home dynamics, all while they’re missing their parents. And they’re usually worried about surviving the rest of the day, not their plans for 15 years down the road. These kids are focused on the basic needs of life; safety, security, stability. They haven’t had these things.
Amy: When I think about the ABC’s of Student Finance you’ve developed, the C stands for Completion. Nationally, less than 3% of foster youth graduate from a four-year college by age 26. What are the greatest contributing factors?
Gregg: Completion success in college begins when there are strong foundations built around performance in elementary, middle and high school. High school dropout rates are three times higher for foster youth than other low income children. Nationwide, less than 3% of foster youth graduate from a 4-year college by age 26 compared to 45% of the general population nationally. Foster students tend to be disproportionately represented in the population of students that require remedial high school math and English. Because they don’t have the basic groundwork there, they may start college but not make it through.
Through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all foster care students are supposed to get the very best educational resources available to them in hopes of reducing the number of times a student will change schools. But how do you accomplish that—how do you measure progress of this group, on the whole? Just like in higher education, our standardized metrics don’t work. We need to break them down by gender, transfer, ethnicity—and foster should be its own category.
Amy: The primary goal of foster care, whenever possible, is to reunite families. Do you think it’s the right goal?
Gregg: I do. But I believe there needs to be work and investment made to make that goal realistic, and sustainable. There are a lot of forces at work against a kid who is in the system—think of a child who traverses years and years in different homes, different schools, all while we had the lofty goal to reunite families. Reuniting a family is a good goal, but in my experience there is incredible damage during the months and years we are waiting around for that to happen. We need to start measuring the success of the foster care system across states by more than just ‘were we able to reunite a family?’ For starters, we need states to be more transparent about the educational experience and attainment of foster kids before, during, and after they leave foster care. As a society, we can do so much better here.
Amy: Along those lines, more than 20,000 individuals age out of foster care each year. What support services do you see available to them? And what ones do you think are missing?
Gregg: Youth who age out of foster care are less likely than youth in the general population to graduate from high school and are less likely to attend or graduate college. College support resources vary by state, but even where they DO exist, how on earth do foster children find them? They don’t care about filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), they care about where to sleep at night safely, and where their next meal will come from
Why isn’t there a pathway to free community college for foster children and those who have aged out of the system? Every community college could—and should—be identifying the foster kids in their area and pulling them in to talk to them. High schools know who their foster community is, because it has to be self-reported. We have the information needed, we’re just not helping them how we could. It would be heroic if we could double the completion rate from 3% to 6%. It sounds kind of ridiculous even as I say it to suggest we would be happy to achieve a 6% completion rate. In what world is that an accomplishment?
Amy: That’s a great point. And under the McKinney-Vento Act, they would be classified as homeless and independent, meaning they would be eligible to receive maximum Pell funding. But the students get bottlenecked, because foster youth find the FAFSA daunting and confusing.
Gregg: I can’t say I blame them. After everything we’ve talked about, how can we expect them to know things like ‘you’re exempt from filling out the parent section of the FAFSA, so don’t stress about it.’ Even in the cases where they make it through the FAFSA, did you know that over 50% of colleges ask for additional documentation – unnecessarily – to verify that an individual was a ward of the court prior to the age of majority? They don’t know how to handle these things, and since no one has given them a sense of purpose or a belief that they SHOULD care about it, they just walk away. Often back into the system.
Amy: If you could do anything, bring in any partner, suggest any idea, what would you want to do?
Gregg: ‘Free College for Foster Youth’ has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Foster youth who received financial aid were 40% more likely to accrue 15 or more credits in one year compared to foster youth who didn’t. What if we could bring together some big foundations who make substantial investments in education generally and propose $250,000 a year to fund a pilot program aimed at helping foster kids succeed in higher education? Educate around this throughout a child’s life in the foster care system, help change the perception that ‘I’m not good enough.’ Show foster kids how we can help them put money in the bank to get through higher education—give them a reason to want to do the work.
Amy: Gregg, thanks for talking through all this. I’ll be interested to hear what type of feedback the EdTech and student financial services communities provide. It feels like there’s a solution out there, that we could all champion.
Gregg: Agreed. I’d love to know what big ideas folks have. Send them on to me, I’m listening!