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Abstract

Over the past 30 years, troubling outcomes of older youth in foster care have attracted attention from federal lawmakers, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders. Without sufficient resources, support, and skills necessary to transition to adult independence, these youth experience higher rates of incarceration, homelessness, educational underachievement, and unemployment than peers not involved in foster care. Promoting college degree attainment has become an explicit target of recent legislation. Many past studies have documented poor postsecondary education outcomes for foster youth, but few have investigated factors that drive these outcomes. The goal of this dissertation is to examine individual, college, and policy factors that impact postsecondary education outcomes of foster youth. Analysis of secondary data collected from the Midwest Study examines college entry and completion for a representative sample of over 700 foster youth from three Midwestern states. The findings show that more than nine in ten 17 year-olds in foster care aspired to go to college, but 12 years later only half had made it to college and just one in ten completed a certificate or degree. Among young people who enrolled in college, six-year completion rates were substantially lower for foster youth (17%) than for a high risk comparison group of low-income first-generation students (44%). Results from regression analyses arrived at the following conclusions. Factors pertaining to youths’ academic history and skills and behavioral problems exerted the strongest influence on their likelihood of entering college. In terms of college persistence, youth who started college younger, who had higher reading proficiency, and who had experienced fewer foster care placement changes and school moves had higher odds of persisting. The strongest influences on college completion were life circumstances after youth had entered college (e.g., economic hardships, parental responsibilities) and characteristics of the colleges they attended. The findings also indicated that aspects of youths’ foster care histories predicted their level of avoidant attachment (i.e., emotional guardedness, reluctance to depend on others) in adolescence. In turn, youth higher in avoidant attachment had lower odds of persisting in and completing college. Finally, a policy that extended the age limit of foster care from 18 to 21 increased the likelihood that youth enrolled in college by age 21, but did not influence long-term college outcomes. This study finds that about half of foster youth who enter college never make it past the first few semesters, and academic underpreparedness and financial hardships are formidable barriers to their college success. It is argued that early, targeted interventions that remain in place as other foster care supports phase out will be integral to supporting these young people through college. Recommendations for professionals, child welfare departments, colleges, and policy makers are offered in the concluding chapter.

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