In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postsecondary Education Experiences and Attainment Among Youth With Foster Care Backgrounds

  • Introduction
  • Educational Aspirations
  • Rates of Postsecondary Education Enrollment and Completion
  • Experiences and Outcome Disparities by Gender, Race, and Ethnicity
  • Barriers to Postsecondary Education Enrollment and Attainment
  • Factors that Promote Postsecondary Education Enrollment and Attainment
  • State Policies and Tuition Waivers
  • Programs that Target Secondary School Completion and Postsecondary Education Enrollment
  • Programs that Target Postsecondary Education Persistence and Completion
  • International: Cross-national Studies

Social Work Postsecondary Education Experiences and Attainment Among Youth With Foster Care Backgrounds
Nathanael J. Okpych, Jennifer M. Geiger, Royel M. Johnson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0326


This article focuses on postsecondary education among young people who currently are or were in foster care (i.e., out-of-home care settings, including relative and nonrelative foster homes, group care, and other institutional settings). While there are numerous terms and labels used to refer to this group, we will use person-first language to avoid the risk of implying that “being in foster care system is related to internal characteristics of the individual” (Geiger and Gross 2019, p. 3, cited under Overview of Policies), rather than a function of the conditions in which they are placed. In the United States, as in many other countries, young people with foster care experience are among the most underserved student groups. Although most of these youth aspire to go to college, the reality is that few realize that dream. Most studies show that about 50 percent or less of young people in US foster care enroll in college, and about 2–10 percent earn a college degree. While research on postsecondary education among youth with foster care experience has increased in several countries, growth has been particularly rapid and expansive in the United States. Federal US child welfare policies began to address the difficult transition of youth aging out of foster care, broadly, in the mid-1980s. Since the turn of the millennium, several key policies have explicitly targeted education of youth in foster care by reducing unnecessary school changes, funding educational support services, providing grants and tuition waivers for postsecondary education expenses, and extending the age limit until which youth can remain in foster care. Internationally, countries are in various stages of policy development, with some beginning to study and raise awareness about the educational journeys of youth aging out of care, while others have well-developed national policies for this population. Research on programs designed to promote college success includes studies focused on pre-college programming to increase readiness and skills for navigating college, campus support programs (CSPs) that provide comprehensive support to students enrolled in college, publications that describe and evaluate CSPs, and the role of programs in student enrollment and attainment. This article begins by reviewing US-based studies on educational aspirations and outcomes (and disparities by race and gender), as well as barriers and promoters of postsecondary attainment. This is followed by studies on policies and programs designed to promote postsecondary access and completion. The article concludes with two sections on literature outside of the United States on postsecondary education among youth with out-of-home care experience.

Educational Aspirations

Findings from research reviewed in this section indicate that young people with foster care experience have high aspirations for entering and completing college. Courtney, et al. 2004, a report on the Midwest Study, finds that roughly 71 percent of youth aspire to graduate from college or attain a higher level of education, which is similar to the 70 percent of young people in the study Kirk, et al. 2013 who planned to attend college. Young people’s aspirations about their education may not always align exactly with their expectations, however. Okpych, et al. 2015 reports that 83 percent of young people in the CalYOUTH Study aspire to enroll in college, but a slightly lower percentage (79 percent) expect to enroll. McMillen, et al. 2003 finds that youth who are male, younger, have more peers engaged in concerning activities (e.g., fighting, illegal substance abuse, teen pregnancy), and are less optimistic tend to have lower educational aspirations. These youth are also more likely to have experience in a psychiatric hospital or a correctional facility. Relatedly, findings from qualitative interviews in Morton 2018 show that cumulative experiences with trauma can also undermine youths’ aspirations.

  • Courtney, M. E., S. Terao, and N. Bost. 2004. Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of youth preparing to leave state care. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the Univ. of Chicago.

    This report presents results from the first of five waves of data collection from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (Midwest Study). The Midwest Study is a longitudinal research project that followed a representative sample of 732 youth from Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin as they transitioned out of foster care. One of the areas assessed in the study is youths’ education.

  • Kirk, C. M., R. K. Lewis, C. Nilsen, and D. Q. Colvin. 2013. Foster care and college: The educational aspirations and expectations of youth in the foster care system. Youth & Society 45.3: 307–323.

    DOI: 10.1177/0044118X11417734

    This article examines differences in the educational aspirations and expectations of young people in foster care in comparison to their peers with no foster care experience. The authors analyze data from Kansas Kids @GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), which surveys 1,377 youths about their educational goals, academic self-perception, and social support.

  • McMillen, C., W. Auslander, D. Elze, T. White, and R. Thompson. 2003. Educational experiences and aspirations of older youth in foster care. Child Welfare 82.4: 475–495.

    This article examines the educational experiences and aspirations of youth referred to an independent living program. Data were derived from a sample of 262 youths in the Missouri Division of Family Services.

  • Morton, B. M. 2018. The grip of trauma: How trauma disrupts the academic aspirations of foster youth. Child Abuse & Neglect 75:73–81.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.04.021

    Using phenomenological research methods, this article examines the college-going experiences of 11 students with foster care involvement. Specifically, the study seeks to identify challenges the participants experience as they pursue a bachelor’s degree.

  • Okpych, N. J., M. E. Courtney, and P. Charles. 2015. Youth and caseworker perspectives on older adolescents in California foster care: Youths’ education status and services. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the Univ. of Chicago.

    This report analyzes data from Courtney’s California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH), a longitudinal panel study of 727 youths in California foster care. The report examines the educational status of and services available to youth in foster care in California. It is one of few studies that investigate such issues from the perspectives of both youth and the child welfare professionals responsible for their care.

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