Developing a Campus Support Program for Foster Youth at Community College of Philadelphia

by Michelle Lopez, Coordinator, Community Engagement and Civic Leadership Initiatives, Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership and Sarah Jeanne Maguire, J.D., Resource and Support Specialist, Division of Access and Community Engagement

The Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership, with the help of internal and external partners, is creating a comprehensive in-house support system for one of the College’s most vulnerable populations on campus: students with experience in the foster care system.

Currently there are more than 400,000 children and youth in our nation’s foster care system, and every year more than 23,000 individuals “age out” of the system.1 Pennsylvania is one out of a number of states, and the District of Columbia, that have chosen to extend support until age 21.2 Therefore, youth who decide to leave the system at age 21, instead of age 18, may continue to receive support and qualify for additional aid to help meet their educational, employment and independent living goals.

At the beginning of this academic year, the College identified 180 currently enrolled students with a history of foster care placement. While the number may not seem alarming, we know that foster youth are hard to identify at the college level. These students do not always indicate their involvement in foster care on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. Because of this self-reporting system, it is highly likely that there are more students at the College with a history of foster care than we currently know.

More than 70 percent of foster youth aspire to go to college, yet they attend at less than half the rate of their peers.3 Most former foster youth drop out after their first year. Of those who do attain a degree, it typically takes six or more years to complete college.

Students with experience in foster care face a number of challenges. They often struggle to navigate their classes and college resources as any first-time college student would, and lack the familial support system that other students are likely to depend on during the transition to college. Some foster youth contend with homelessness or the risk of becoming homeless. Foster youth who age out at 18 and have not reconnected with their family or other resources are at great risk of experiencing housing insecurity.

Work championed by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Foundation, helped Community College of Developing a Campus Support Program for Foster Youth at Community College of Philadelphia Guided Pathways at Community College of Philadelphia by Michelle Lopez, Coordinator, Community Engagement and Civic Leadership Initiatives, Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership and Sarah Jeanne Maguire, J.D., Resource and Support Specialist, Division of Access and Community Engagement Philadelphia, along with Cabrini University, Temple University, and West Chester University, to be chosen to lead the effort of creating on-campus support programs for students connected to the foster care system.

This selection makes us the first cohort of postsecondary institutions in the region to build formal foster youth supports at the college level. While each institution was selected for respectively unique reasons, the strength of the College’s proposed Single Point of Contact (SPOC) program model, which will allow us to better serve our foster youth population, received an honorable mention from the Field Center and the Philadelphia Foundation. This model incorporates best practices into a system that will increase the success and retention of foster youth. Briana Drummer, former foster youth and current student at the College, informed the Institute of her experience, stating, “I feel as though having a foster youth program present in each school is crucial to a foster child’s success in college. From age 18 and up, many foster youth are figuring out things on their own without help from the government. Yes, one may receive grants from their experience in the system, but what good are the grants if a student doesn’t have a place to lay their head down or food to eat in order to focus on school?”

Many social service agencies incorporate the SPOC framework into their organizational models. A single point of contact represents an individual or network of individuals who are equipped to provide immediate and direct assistance to students regarding a variety of issues. The points of contact are trained to immediately address issues or provide referrals to students who seek support while navigating the College. This includes connecting students to both internal and external resources that they may need in order to remain successful. Single points of contact can facilitate more open, frequent and effective communication with students, thereby increasing the College’s ability to support those students. Establishing these points creates a safe space for foster youth on campus and limits the number of times a student has to repeat their history, while also ensuring that those students can quickly and efficiently access the resources and answers they need.

Other elements of our foster youth program will include facilitating an ongoing series of training for employees, creating a symbol used to identify the point of contact individuals and offices across campus, identifying enrolled students that have been in foster care, hosting welcome events for youth who join the program, incorporating the foster youth support program into the student orientation process, and promoting the College’s unique supports for foster youth to encourage student participation. We will also work with the Field Center’s foster care-to-college workgroup advocacy efforts to formalize better identifying tools and selfreporting protocols for foster youth on the Common Application and federal financial aid forms, and for the state to provide a tuition waiver for all foster youth to attend college free of charge.

To begin to make this vision a reality, the Institute held three College-wide events to support implementation of the program.

The Institute hosted a training with the Valley Youth House, a leading provider agency for foster youth, who shared best practices and provided external resources that directly benefit foster youth.

In addition, the Institute engaged a national expert, Maddy Day, of Western Michigan University’s Fostering Success program, to conduct a consultation regarding how best to engage various departments and individuals within the College to support the program.

Our leading event was a panel discussion featuring Youth Fostering Change, a group of students from the Juvenile Law Center. This group, made up of youth directly affected by their experiences in the foster care system, shared their recommendations on what colleges can do to better serve their population. A newly published guide from Youth Fostering Change titled “Achieving Success: Guidance for Colleges to Better Support Foster Youth,” offers the following from Tay, a group member: “I would love if there was an advisor or support team who could help me when I go to college and offer support and guidance. As a foster youth, no one has explained anything about college to me, so I would like it if there was an advisor that could be there when I need them.”

More than 40 College faculty and employees representing the following offices engaged in one or more of our foster youth activities: Center for Male Engagement, Counseling, Division of Access and Community Engagement (DACE), Gateway to College, Keystone Education Yields Success (KEYS), Financial Aid, Single Stop, Student Life, and the Women’s Outreach and Advocacy Center. It is the Institute’s hope that these individuals will be our future campus support champions and serve as supporters for our current and incoming foster youth students.