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Higher Education for Foster Youth


“Foster children are one of the most educationally vulnerable populations in our schools”(1).

Barton Allen and James Vacca, in their recent study about the negative academic effects of frequent moves on foster children assert this claim, citing that foster youth are not given equal opportunities for academic achievement and that many are not encouraged to pursue higher education.

During their time in care, foster children, on average, are moved through three different placements (2). These moves can happen with little or no warning and often force a child to change school districts, leaving their friends, teachers, and coaches behind. A 2000 study of foster children in New York found that 65% had transferred schools mid-year (3).

Transferring schools presents roadblocks to any child, but especially to those children who transfer frequently or in the middle of an academic calendar. Missing school records can cause delays in school registration and force children to remain out of school for days or weeks. Transfers also require children to adapt to new teachers and schoolmates, and a curriculum that may differ considerably from their previous school.

These obstacles have a harmful effect on educational outcomes. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, students who change schools frequently are more likely to have poor test scores, repeat a grade, or drop out than those who have consistent and stable education.  Moreover, studies have shown that compared to non-foster youth, foster children have higher rates of grade repetition, absenteeism, truancy, and tardiness, and lower standardized test scores (4). Seventy-five percent of foster youth are behind grade level (5).

The statistics are just as grim for those foster care youth hoping to pursue higher education. Frequent transfers and frustration with school result in disengagement and dropping out. Only 46% of foster youth complete high school, compared to 84% of the general population(6). Furthermore, 70% of foster youth report that they want to attend college, but fewer than 10% of those who graduate from high school enroll in college and of those, less than 1% graduate from college (7).

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  1. Allen, B. & Vacca, J. (2009). Frequent moving has a negative affect on the school achievement of foster children. Children and Youth Services Review, 32, 829-932.
  2. US Dept. of Health and Human Services AFCARS report, 2003
  3. Advocates for Children of New York, Inc., 2000, p. 5
  4. Martin, J. (2003). Foster youth desire college, study shows, but face roadblocks to learning, Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom
  5. Barriers Facing Foster Youth Statistics, Honoring Emancipated Youth
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.