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Whether They Identify or Not We Should Support College Students from Foster Care

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
May 14, 2021

Whether They Identify or Not We Should Support College Students from Foster Care

- Sara Jones, Ph.D.


Though it is likely that college students who experience foster care (CSEFC) are on the majority of college campuses this population of students is often invisible (Sydor, 2013). There are myriad reasons college students choose to deidentify from foster care, including a personal desire to destigmatize or de-label themselves as foster kid (Bederian-Gardneretal et al., 2018). No matter their reason for deidentification, however, it is our opportunity as professionals in higher education to promote authentic engagement for all students. By learning more about the complex web of resources available to alumni of foster care and by building relationships that build upon students’ basic needs, student affairs professionals can work to generate equity for a group of students who aspire to matriculate and graduate from college (Okpych & Courtney, 2014). It can be daunting to conceptualize solutions for students who are often invisible, however, below are five (plus) steps you can take to support CSEFC.


Increase your knowledge. Higher education is a microcosm of society and larger societal problems and trends such as affordable housing and trauma-informed practices impact CSEFC more so than their peers. Though this group of students are skilled at self-advocacy and self/system navigation (Johnson, 2019), they will benefit from your functional area expertise and knowledge of student development theory. Your skills and knowledge, coupled with increased awareness of students’ needs can help to generate educational equity and a sense of belonging for students. Start your information gathering by searching for the following: 

  •       National, state, and campus organizations that support CSEFC
  •       Educational training vouchers (ETVs) for your state
  •       Financial aid policies for independent students
  •       Housing and dining policies on your campus 
  •       Professionals on your campus and in the community,  who work with youth in foster care


Give a little extra. Food pantries, clothing closets, and emergency funds are some of the many resources colleges and universities have to support students’ acquisition of basic needs. Though students appreciate access to basic needs, the result is sometimes…well, basic. In an interview with campus support providers, an academic advisor and campus designated point of contact told me that her students loved going to the off-campus food pantry run by an Episcopal church because they always supplied treats like “snowball cupcakes or whole candy bars.”  She also suggested supplementing students’ basic pantry items with grocery gift cards or tokens for the farmer’s market so students can choose their own fresh produce, meats, or dairy. The same concept for clothing works, too. Instead of housing a clothing closet on campus, work with local thrift and consignment stores, and donors to provide vouchers for students to choose their own personal wardrobe items. Giving students resources and opportunities to make their own choices not only helps to meet students’ basic needs, but allows for movement up Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy as choice helps to generate a sense of belonging and connection.


Innovate solutions using campus resources and student strengths. Allow students to conceptualize the programs and resources they want and need. Then, when possible, give students the opportunity and support to continue the process. Examples of these, taken from the aforementioned research project include campus/community gardens created and upkept by students and a dining hall swipe drive where students donate unused meal plan dollars to other students who need and will benefit from fresh food from the campus dining hall. In another example, a student organization that focused on food sustainability learned how to “rescue” unused food from the dining hall in order to create to-go boxes that were kept in temperature controlled spaces across campus for students to access multiple times per week. Including students in problem solving projects not only generates another perspective, it also creates space for students to support each other, therefore increasing opportunities for both student engagement and student sense of belonging.


Encourage and engage in mentoring relationships. Mentoring relationships are consistently listed as promising practices for college students, especially those who have been historically or are currently disenfranchised. CSEFC will benefit from developing mentoring relationships with student affairs professionals, as well as, other college students. Based on their previous experiences, CSEFC will likely feel comfortable working independently or asking student affairs professionals for navigational help. They are more likely, however, to need assistance while developing relationships with peers. Since CSEFC often feel disconnected from peers (Johnson, 2019),  peer mentoring programs can provide opportunities to develop interpersonal skills and a personal network of peer support.


Check your family privilege. The majority of students enrolled in college have family privilege, a phrase coined by John Seita in 2001, and a concept I was first introduced to during a NASPA conference presentation by The Foster Scholars. Family privilege describes the benefits received as a result of living with a stable family. The vast majority of students matriculate to college with family privilege, and the higher education system is built upon an assumption that students have multiple levels of familial support. Many student affairs professionals assume that families provide financial, social, and emotional resources to students. However, CSEFC often transition to college without these resources and familial support. In fact, many CSEFC did not have help planning for college from family members, nor can their families provide additional funds for necessitates and emergencies. During prolonged breaks from the academic calendar, when students with a history of stable families travel home (i.e., spring break, summer, winter break) CSEFC may need housing and meal accommodations. As you review your campus’ policies, procedures, and literature regarding orientation and family-day weekends, look for examples of family privilege and think about ways to include the needs of CSEFC.


I still want to do more! What else can I do?


Become a foster parent or CASA volunteer. If you are interested in investing more time with youth and families in your community consider becoming a foster parent or CASA volunteer. The primary goal of foster care is family reunification, which occurs more often than not in foster care cases. Foster parents are called upon by professionals in social services to keep children safe while their parents receive the resources and help necessary for their families to reunite safely and permanently. If supporting families via foster parenting is not a good fit for you and you have time and the desire to engage in community work, volunteer for CASA. Court appointed special advocates, or CASA volunteers are appointed to support youth as they navigate foster care and the judicial system.


CSEFC are a population of students who deserve our best, and as a group aspire to attend and graduate from college. Student affairs professionals, because of their knowledge of higher education and student development, are uniquely situated to make a difference in this group’s higher education journey. By learning more about their needs and advocating for CSEFC, student affairs professionals can make a difference even when students do not identify themselves as former foster youth or alumni of foster care.





Bederian-Gardner, D., Hobbs, S. D., Ogle, C. M., Goodman, G. S., Cordón, I. M., Bakanosky,     S., & Chong, J. Y. (2018). Instability in the lives of foster and nonfoster youth: Mental            health impediments and attachment insecurities. Children and Youth Services        Review84159-167. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.10.019

Johnson, R.M. (2019). The state of research on undergraduate youth formerly in foster care: A                 systematic review of the literature. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. 14(1), 147-          160. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000150

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396. 

Okpych, N. J., & Courtney, M. E. (2014). Does education pay for youth formerly in foster care? Comparison of employment outcomes with a national sample. Children and Youth Services Review, 43, 18-28.

Salazar, A. M., Jones, K. R., Emerson, J. C., & Mucha, L. (2016). Postsecondary strengths,          challenges, and supports experienced by foster care alumni college graduates. Journal of      College Student Development, 57(3), 263-279.

Seita, J. R. (2001). Growing up without family privilege. Reclaiming Children and Youth10(3), 130-132.

Sydor, A. (2013). Conducting research into hidden or hard-to-reach populations. Nurse     Researcher, 20(3), 33-37. https://doi.org/10.7748/nr2013. 



Bio: Sarah Jones is an assistant professor of college student affairs and higher education administration at the University of West Georgia. She has over 20 years of experience in public schools across the Pk-20 continuum. Before graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in Counseling and Student Personnel Services, Sarah worked as a classroom teacher for 10 years in North Carolina Public Schools then as an administrator in higher education where she worked with students transitioning from high school to college. Her research emphasizes the educational experiences of students emerging from foster care, particularly the matriculation, retention, progression, and graduation of this group of students. Sarah and her wife are foster and adoptive parents. To speak more about this topic with Sarah, email her at [email protected].