ACEs Research Could Improve College Completion Rates for Foster Care Youth

ACEs: Stressed focused african american woman concentrating doing difficult online computer work, frustrated black female student looking at laptop feeling headache tired of study learning overwork



For the past 13 years I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of students who enroll at our university. It is through these daily exchanges that I have learned about the inequities that exist at both the post-secondary and secondary levels.

As a student affairs professional, I am responsible for developing support services for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, which include first-generation, low-income and college students with disabilities. As I reflect, I realize that student experiences vary by demographic. Students can attend the same university and walk away with very different experiences.

To expound on that idea, some students are more prepared, while others are less prepared for the next steps of life. Some students travel abroad, while others will never get the opportunity. Some students pay more for their education, while others pay less. It seems that a college education, which was once thought of as the “great equalizer,” no longer carries that effect. Students who come from less advantaged backgrounds can leave with a far less robust college experience.

For students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, college is a vital resource for achieving positive life outcomes. For example, college success for foster care youth is much more vital to life success compared to their non-foster peers. Only 10% of former foster care youth enroll in college, with as few as 4% obtaining a bachelor degree, according to a 2005 study.

In terms of postsecondary education attainment, foster care youth hold the lowest rate nationally. If that statement causes a pause, remember race/ethnicity, class, economic status and generational status intersect, composing a complex picture of the students currently enrolled in higher education. Reports estimate that children of color are overrepresented in the foster care system. According to 2014 statistics from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, African Americans and Hispanics make up 24% and 22%, respectively of the children in the foster care system. In contrast, Caucasians and Asians remain underrepresented in the U.S. foster care system. So the question becomes, how do we increase the likelihood of success of foster care youth enrolling in universities across our nation?

Youth in Care need framework for success

ACEs: Renada Greer (headshot), works with college students from disadvantaged backgrounds at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, smiling woman with shoulder-length dark hair, black outfit.

Renada Greer

Foster care youth, by no fault of their own, are disconnected from vital resources in early life stages that other children get that contribute to postsecondary education success. Not being reared in a healthy family environment results in many disadvantages. Some of these include lack of social and cultural development, parental support, supportive adult guidance, financial support and educational development.

Foster care is a temporary solution to a long-term problem, a temporary safe haven for children who are at serious risk of harm. Foster care was not designed to be a long-term family solution. Although foster care services are improving, especially those relative to transitions to adulthood that includes enrollment in postsecondary education, an effective framework for success is critical to finding a solution.

The disadvantages of early childhood experiences present real challenges for foster care youth in later life stages. Imperative to developing a framework that will help foster care youth succeed in college is finding and/or providing effective interventions that can assist with course-correcting past events and moving youth forward.

One approach that shows promise of potentially improving long-term outcomes is the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs can be physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and household dysfunction such as domestic violence, separation or divorce involving household members and incarceration.

Children, youth or adults who have one or more ACEs may be among those who have passed through the foster care system. I’m not saying that all individuals with one or more ACEs will encounter the foster care system because not all incidents are reported and not all reports warrant the severity of a child being placed in foster care.

I’m interested in knowing how many students who have been identified as having ACEs have spent a period in the foster care system. For this reason, I believe research on ACEs could provide connection to the foster care system and possible improve long-term results for current and former foster care youth, thus having implications for former foster care youth who enroll in four-year postsecondary institutions.

Renada Greer has worked with college students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds at Southern Illinois University Carbondale for over 13 years. She has an acute understanding of the unique needs and challenges of these students.

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