According to research from Casey Family Programs, a national charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care, estimates suggest that only about 7 to 13 percent of youth from foster care enroll in higher education. Out of those who matriculate to postsecondary institutions, only 2 percent of young people from foster care obtain bachelor’s degrees, in comparison to 24 percent of adults in the general population. Such sobering statistics reflect the critical need for policymakers, child welfare agencies, government officials, higher education systems, and educators at the secondary and postsecondary levels to address this issue facing approximately 20,000 youth age 16 and older who transition or “age” out of foster care each year.
Recently, several colleges and universities across the country have answered the call for action by creating programs that help foster care youth to fund and complete their college education. One such initiative, the Seita Scholars Program at Western Michigan University, has received accolades for its work supporting the educational attainment and life outcomes of youth and young adults (12-25 years old) who have lived some or all of their years in foster care. The program, now in its fifth year, provides tuition assistance and extensive student support services including mental health counseling, life skills training, and career planning to foster youth who have lived in foster care on or after their 14th birthday. Seita Scholars experience on-on-one coaching to help them navigate both the challenges of college life as well as those of the adult world more broadly, including filing tax returns, applying for Medicaid, and budgeting their weekly expenses. Given that many students from foster care do not have a permanent residence, the program ensures that a WMU dormitory is kept open through school recesses and summer breaks and organizes community meals and activities on holidays. Academic tutoring is available to all scholarship recipients as well as career advising and assistance with locating internships and employment opportunities in the Kalamazoo, Michigan community.
The Seita Scholars Program is an example of a comprehensive approach to assisting youth and young adults who age out of foster care. Its success can be attributed, in part, to its focus on the future rather than the past. While acknowledging and not diminishing the fact that many of its students have experienced trauma and harrowing life experiences, the program’s emphasis is on moving forward and equipping youth with the tools to manage difficulties, access resources, and succeed in college and beyond.
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