VANCOUVER, Wash. – Older youths in foster care often age out of the system, meaning they reach adulthood without being adopted or reunified with family. And those young people frequently face large obstacles in continuing their education beyond high school.
A new study led by Washington State University faculty aims to make the transition to higher education less intimidating and more realistic for this population, thanks to a five‑year, $3.8 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education.
“There’s a lot of growing interest in helping older youth gain a post-secondary education,” said Amy Salazar, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “But there isn’t much evidence for how to go about doing that, to make sure a program is successful.”
To fill that gap, Salazar, who is based on the WSU Vancouver campus, is leading a four-state randomized study that will determine the efficacy of “Better Futures.” The program was developed a decade ago by Laurie Powers and Sarah Geenen at Portland State University when Salazar was a graduate student.
The study will include older foster care youth in Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, Urbana‑Champaign, Ill., and California’s East Bay, around Oakland.
Each study site is based at a university where staff will be trained to implement the program. “Better Futures” consists of three components: nine months of academic coaching on how to prepare for college, workshops on a variety of specific topics, and an on‑campus college experience.
“They’ll stay in residence halls, eat in the cafeteria, and attend pre‑scheduled events,” Salazar said. “They’ll spend three days and two nights learning and experiencing what it’s like to be in college.”
“Better Futures” will also provide near-peer mentoring, allowing foster youth to meet and learn from college students who are alumni of the foster care system nearby. The different components are necessary because many older youth in foster care face obstacles to higher education that their peers likely don’t face.
One of those obstacles is the lack of role models who have been to college. Another is access to information like financial aid and scholarships. Young people in foster care also tend to bounce around regularly, moving to different schools and often falling behind academically.
“If you’re working hard to just finish school, planning for college understandably isn’t often prioritized,” she said. “We want to help youth think about the possibilities and rewards of navigating complex systems like higher education.”
The “Better Futures” program started as a small pilot study conducted nearly 10 years ago, but no large evidence-based evaluations have been completed to assess its effectiveness. A lack of evidence about what works leads to a hodge-podge of programs that often differ significantly from state to state, Salazar said.
“Lots of people want to help this population get a post-secondary education,” she said. “But without evidence, there’s no way to know if a program is actually helping young people.”
If Salazar and her colleagues can show the “Better Futures” program produces successful students at sites around the country, then they can expand the strategy further. That’s the scenario she’s hoping for.
“When we remove children from their homes, we as a society are responsible for their care,” Salazar said. “We’re responsible for what they learn and how they’re preparing for adulthood. And if they earn a higher education degree, they will be better equipped to achieve many of the goals they set for themselves. That’s better for everyone.”
The Institute of Education Sciences grant will cover 100% of the costs of the study.