Preparing Youth in Foster Care for College: Unlocking Their Potential for a Bright Future

For young people in foster care, the path to higher education can be challenging. They may have faced instability and adversity, which could impact their academic journey. They may lack the funds, resources, and support systems to navigate scholarship applications and the entire admissions process.

While it may seem early to start the scholarship application process, starting now is perhaps the best time to prepare for what’s ahead.

“Start before you think you need to,” said Kim Bailey, Transition Coordination Manager. “Don’t wait until something is due tomorrow or a deadline has passed.”

Kim (pictured right) provides transition support services for youth transitioning into adulthood at the Ozanam Campus Day Treatment School, the YES program, Build Trybe, and the Pathways Transitional Living Program.

It’s important to note that pursuing a secondary degree isn’t right for everyone. The advice shared here is valuable for all caretakers working with youth in foster care who are approaching a significant life transition, even if they don’t plan to attend college.

With the right support and guidance, young people can overcome obstacles and unlock their full potential. In this blog, we’ll explore the importance of preparing youth in foster care for college and offer some valuable tips to help them move closer to achieving their dreams.  

Build a Supportive Environment

One of the fundamental aspects of preparing youth in foster care for college is creating a nurturing and supportive environment. It’s crucial to provide them with a foundation to launch into adulthood, and foster parents, caregivers, and educators play an essential role in helping young adults develop the confidence to pursue higher education.

Ideally, this work begins years before the transition – getting a job, moving into a new apartment, going to college, or graduating out of foster care – and can support the youth as they take their next big step.

“It’s overwhelming to a lot of that age group – there is so much information out there,” said Kim. “They need that one go-to person that can help them navigate the processes for enrolling for college or whatever it is – someone that can be a sounding board and read through things.”

Young people need a safe adult who can meet them where they are – a caring adult who provides encouragement, understanding, and emotional support makes a significant difference in their academic journey.

“Kids are relationship-based,” said Kim. “If they trust that you have their best interests at heart, they’ll be open to talking and doing what you ask them to do.”

Trusting others can be difficult, especially for youth who have experienced childhood trauma, and it’s important to go slow and not force them to do something they aren’t ready to do.

“Offer them a choice in how and when they engage with conversations about the future and complete materials,” said Kim. “Don’t judge them if they aren’t following the exact steps, but focus on building that relationship.”

Academic Support

Youth in foster care may have experienced disruptions in their education due to placement changes, family crises, or other factors. As they approach college, it’s essential to address any learning gaps. Tutoring, extra classes, or educational programs can help them catch up with their peers and feel more confident in their academic abilities.

There are many scholarships and support programs that can help youth in foster care be successful in college. The challenge is navigating the red tape and determining which programs apply to which kids.

Doreen Wallace is one of those youth in foster care who found the support she needed through the YES Program. The YES program exists to help youth in foster care address barriers to education – such as lack of financial resources, emotional support, and social opportunities – and increase the number of foster kids attending and graduating from a higher education program. 

In August 2019, Doreen moved to St. Louis to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and start her Master’s in Legal Studies at Washington University School of Law. She credits the YES program for helping her to find an LSAT prep course to help her increase her score and get into law school, as well as assisting with tuition and textbook costs.

Explore Career Interests

College can be a transformative experience where young people discover their passions and interests. By exposing youth to different professions through internships, workshops, or mentorship programs, they can broaden their horizons and be inspired to set ambitious goals.

Christa McLaughlin (pictured right), Transition Support Specialist, supports Build Trybe youth as they explore their career interests and navigate life during and after the program. 

“I love the one-on-one with them,” said Christa. “I like that I can see the holes and where I need to fill them. I’ll have more time than Kim did to fill those needs and work with that program to help make it more successful.”

The Build Trybe program teaches youth about various vocational trades like culinary, construction, and landscaping, providing them with a mentorship community and employable skills for the future.

Youth rotate through the programs in 10-12 weeks. Just this past summer, five kids graduated from the Build Trybe program, and Christa played an integral role in sending them on their way.

One of the resources that she frequently uses to help youth explore their career interests is Missouri Connections, a free, comprehensive, online career development and planning program.

Before kids graduate and leave the program, Christa has a transitional meeting to ensure Build Trybe has all their up-to-date contact information. She ensures they have appropriate documentation to get a job – birth certificate, social security card, driver’s license – and gets an idea of their next two to three months of living. Christa educates them about basic budgeting, helps them put together a resume, and does whatever she can to set the graduates up for success.

Check out the stories below to learn more about our Build Trybe graduates.

Financial Planning

Many youth in foster care believe that they can’t afford to attend college. It is essential to educate them about financial aid options, scholarships, and grants available to them. Foster parents can guide them through the application process for these resources.

The good news is that states are starting to recognize the different circumstances that impact kids who are homeless or in foster care and are beginning to provide access to more financial support options.

The bad news is that many young people become overwhelmed by applying for scholarships and financial aid and just give up.

“There are all kinds of money that lay there unused,” said Kim. She spends time listening to the kids, understanding where they’re at, and asking and answering questions to keep them moving.

One resource she directs students to is Educational Training Vouchers (ETVs), which are available to eligible youth in foster care who are pursuing post-secondary education or certified training programs. These funds can go towards housing, textbooks, child care, tutoring, transportation, and more.

Kansas offers a scholarship and training program called Kansas Kids @ GEAR UP (KKGU), a U.S. Department of Education-funded program with Wichita State University that prioritizes children in foster care.

On the Missouri side, kids in foster care with a disability can access Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides scholarship funds for training or college education.

If you’re not ready to dive headfirst into the application process and apply for scholarships, Kim suggests working with kids in foster care on budgeting and saving money.

“Every high school has personal finance as one of their credits, but many kids sail through the class and don’t find personal meaning or purpose in it,” said Kim. 

Get involved in the financial planning process now, said Kim, before it’s too late.

Life Skills Preparation

College life often requires a set of practical skills beyond academics. Foster youth can benefit from learning essential life skills, such as budgeting, time management, and cooking. These skills make their college transition smoother and prepare them for independent living beyond academics.

In addition to her work with Build Trybe, Christa spends significant time partnering with students in the Pathways Transitional Living Program, a program for motivated teens and young adults who are ready to pursue their education or career dreams but are homeless or in foster care.

Jacob, a recent Build Trybe and Pathways graduate, is now living in his own apartment. Thanks to support from the Build Trybe and Pathways programs, Jacob has valuable professional skills, community connections, and a newfound confidence that will empower him to take the next step toward his dreams.

Christa keeps in contact with kids for a minimum of one year after they graduate from one of these programs. Sometimes, they move on without looking back; other times, they’ll contact the transition specialists years later to request help.

“We usually get the call at the eleventh hour,” said Christa. “I wish that it was sooner. Sometimes, things are not important until it’s an emergency. Much of that is mental health-related – they are doing all they can to wake up, get to work, and live their life.”

Given the challenges that youth in foster care experience, Christa makes sure to emphasize the importance of developing coping strategies and prioritizing mental health.

“Their mental health has to come first,” said Christa. “Work life and mental health are not separate. I try to teach them that unless their mental health is in a good place, they won’t be able to work, go to school, or do anything.”

For those caring for youth in foster care, it’s also important to consider counseling services and other mental health support that can be beneficial in helping them manage stress and emotional difficulties.

Summing it All Up

Preparing youth in foster care for college requires a collaborative effort from foster parents, caregivers, educators, and the community. By creating a supportive and nurturing environment, offering academic and emotional support, exploring career interests, and addressing financial concerns, we can help these young adults achieve their educational aspirations. Remember: each young person’s journey from the foster care system can look different, and each of us can play a part in supporting their unique path. Each step we take to empower foster children in their journey to college – or wherever they may go – will not only impact their lives positively but also contribute to building a more inclusive and compassionate society.