Challenges Faced by Former Foster Youth in California

Article By: 
Author Image: 
Elisa Rassen

Approximately 4,000 foster youth will age out of the foster care system every year in California. These young people represent one of the state’s most vulnerable youth populations. Facing numerous economic and social barriers, former foster youth struggle to succeed in higher education. The majority of former foster youth who seek success in post-secondary education enroll in community colleges, and those California colleges have implemented a wide range of programs to support former foster youth’s quest for academic achievement and financial self-sufficiency. This article examines the challenges faced by former foster youth in community college, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of community college responses to those challenges, and recommends best practices for future implementation.


Every year, approximately 4,000 youth “age out” of, or “emancipate” from, California’s foster care system upon reaching the age of 18. Growing up in the foster care system poses a broad range of educational barriers unique to this cohort. The California Youth Connection (CYC) observes that foster youth must cope with a lack of consistency in school curricula, difficulties in securing quality health care, and challenges in developing and maintaining positive and trusting relationships with adults.

In 2007, the Children’s Advocacy Institute reported that 65% of foster youth do not have a place to live upon emancipating, 51% are unemployed, and “only 20% of those who complete high school even begin to pursue postsecondary education, compared with 60% of their peers. The percentage of all former foster youth who attain a college degree is even lower, at only 1– 3%.”[1]

Research into Former Foster Youth Needs and Community College Responses

Student taking notesThe vast majority of California foster youth in post-secondary education attend a community college. In order to fully understand the experiences and needs of former foster youth enrolled in California community colleges; investigate the successes and challenges of community colleges responding to those needs; and make recommendations to improve the educational success of former foster youth, the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges’ Center for Student Success (CSS) sponsored an in-depth research project.[2] The methodology for exploring these areas of concern included three key components:

  • The design, implementation, and analysis of a survey sent to former foster youth enrolled in California community colleges;
  • The analysis of a survey sent by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to Foster Youth Liaisons[3]; and
  • In-depth interviews/site visits with 12 colleges throughout the state.

Understanding the Former Foster Youth Student Experience: Who Are the Former Foster Youth Enrolled at Community Colleges?

Of the 74 respondents to the student survey, representing 36 different colleges, 96% had earned a high school diploma, GED, or other graduation equivalency. Over half of the respondents were enrolled full-time (12+ units). Despite this substantial course load, 69% of respondents worked a minimum of 20 hours per week in addition to attending school.

How Do Former Foster Youth Use Available Resources?

When asked to report on their use of specific resources at their college, most students indicated that the services they had used and found helpful were financial aid, Chafee grants[4], and Extended Opportunities Programs and Services (EOPS)[5] counseling. An overwhelming number of students identified either Chafee grants or other financial aid as the most helpful resource. They explained:

The Chafee grant has truly helped me stay in school. I cannot afford to pay my rent with the hours that I work while being in school half-time.

Chafee grants and financial aid were very helpful because it was money for school and food that I did not have to take time out of my study time to earn. It is hard to work to support myself and maintain good grades when going to school more than half time.

Community College Responses to Former Foster Youth Needs: Services Provided

The most frequent service provided to former foster youth by community college respondents was help in completing financial assistance applications, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Chafee grant (74%).  In addition, 50% of colleges reported providing referrals to other student support programs and 41% provided referrals to academic support programs. Approximately 30% of programs also provided referrals to health care providers, assistance in locating housing, and Department of Social Services or Independent Living Program (ILP) classes.

Survey respondents further identified their colleges’ priorities for improving services to emancipated foster youth. Forty-one percent of respondents indicated that “outreach to better inform students of all the support services available to them” was of the highest priority; 35% identified assistance in completing the FAFSA and other financial aid or college applications as the top concern.

Successful Approaches to Serving Current and Former Foster Youth

Twelve schools were selected for interviews, each having developed a unique approach to serving emancipated foster youth. Key themes emerged from these interviews that identify useful strategies and techniques for improving the personal and educational outcomes of former foster youth at community colleges:

Housing an Independent Living Program on campus. Schools that work with their county ILP provider to house the program on the college campus have the opportunity to reach out to youth while still in the foster care system and draw them into post-secondary education. ILP programs at some schools provide students with college credit and address topics such as financial literacy, housing and job searches, daily living skills, and campus tours.

Developing partnerships within the college. Many schools have created a team approach that designates staff from a wide range of departments to serve former foster youth. Schools that combine the expertise of Financial Aid, EOPS, Disabled Students Programs and Services, learning assistance center, and other staff are able to meet the varied needs of former foster youth and create a model that is not dependent on a single individual for sustainability.

Developing partnerships with external agencies. Because resources to serve former foster youth are scarce, some schools have created successful partnerships with a range of external agencies to increase support for their programs. Grants from private foundations can support staffing increases; linkages to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Foster Youth Success Initiative provides professional development and technical assistance; and relationships with transitional housing providers can designate slots for college former foster youth and reduce work requirements for residency.

Using a case management approach. Many successful programs use a case management model to serve former foster youth whereby staff develop ongoing relationships with individual youth, personally link them to internal and external support services, and engage in extensive follow-up.

Findings and Recommendations for Improving the Success of Former Foster Youth: Resource Development

CSS researchers recommend that a partnership between public and private agencies, organizations, and funders be developed in order to increase the available resources for these programs to support staffing and direct services to students. These public/private partnerships may include one or more of the following groups:

  • Leadership at the community college district level;
  • County agencies, such as the Department of Social Services;
  • Local businesses seeking to invest in their community;
  • Individual donors; and
  • Public or private grant-giving organizations.

Data Collection and Program Evaluation

Based on the research conducted, it is strongly recommended that a data collection system is implemented statewide in order to track student progress and success. The limited tracking that currently occurs is labor-intensive and not necessarily systematic. It is impossible to assess program achievements without knowing how well the target students are performing academically; how successfully they are accessing and benefiting from resources available; and how the academic and personal success of students receiving intervention/support compares with that of students who are not.

Assisting Youth with Housing

It is recommended that colleges focus on collaborating with their county Department of Social Services to develop partnerships with transitional housing providers in their area. While the development of these relationships may be time-consuming and require the attention of a dedicated staff person, the ability to directly connect students to housing resources will play a critical role in enhancing their ability to succeed in their educational pursuits.

Implementing a Case Management Approach

To address the depth of challenges faced by former foster youth, research from the CSS report suggests that schools should pursue a case management model in serving former foster youth. The intensive services provided by EOPS, as well as the resources given to students, such as book vouchers and transportation passes, might make this office a well-suited location for former foster youth programs.


While former foster youth face a range of barriers to achieving educational success, California community colleges are already working hard to meet the needs of these vulnerable students. With continued investment from the public and private sector, combined with the ongoing commitment of college administration and staff, former foster youth can succeed educationally and, ultimately, enter rewarding career pathways that bring economic security and personal satisfaction.

This article was excerpted and adapted from a report published by the Center for Student Success, part of the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. The original report, Serving Former Foster Youth in California Community Colleges: Successes, Challenges, and Recommendations, was written by Elisa Rassen, Darla Cooper, and Pamela Mery.


[1] Children’s Advocacy Institute, "Expanding Transitional Services for Emancipated Foster Youth: An Investment in California's Tomorrow,” January 2007.

[2] This project was sponsored by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, one of the primary funders of the College Pathways (formerly Guardian Scholars) program for emancipated foster youth.  The full report can be found at

[3] Through its Foster Youth Success Initiative, the Chancellor’s Office has designated a Foster Youth Liaison at each California community college.

[4] Emancipated foster youth are eligible for Chafee grants, which grant up to $5,000 per year to students aged 22 or under.

[5] EOPS is a community college program funded that offers support services to low-income and educationally disadvantaged students.  Students enrolled in the program receive counseling services, financial support, book vouchers, instructional support services, transfer assistance, and more.

About the Author

Elisa Rassen
Consultant: Grant and Research Report Writer

Elisa Rassen is a consultant grant and research report writer working with educational institutions, emerging non-profits, private foundations, and other agencies throughout California. Previously, she was a grant writer at City College of San Francisco where her work resulted in approximately $11 million in grant support to the college from public and private sources. Her particular areas of expertise include support for at-risk students; workforce development; science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); and health education. Ms. Rassen has a B.A. from Harvard University.