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Former Foster Kids Need More Than Higher Education

Deseret News

September 26, 2023

When I tell people that I write about child welfare and the foster care system, the question I am most often asked is “What can we do about the problem of kids aging out?”

“Aging out” is what happens when these teens and young adults — about 40,000 each year — leave foster care without being adopted or reunified. Because they are more likely to become homeless or in prison or addicted to drugs or even trafficked, the public is deeply concerned about the tragic realities of their lives, and rightly so.

This month, Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Sen. Bob Casey D-Pa., introduced the Fostering Success in Higher Education Act in order to “improve college access, retention and graduation rates for foster and homeless youth.” The $150 million for the act would be used to fund not only the tuition costs, but also mental health and other wraparound services for these young Americans.

In a similar vein, last year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a new program granting free college tuition to New York City students in foster care. The city now offers up to $15,000 a year (after financial aid) to cover tuition, housing and a stipend for food and books. And the federal Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood provides vouchers of up to $5,000 per year per eligible youth for postsecondary education and training.

All of these efforts are well-intentioned, but they don’t really address the heart of the problem. To begin with, nationwide, only about half of youth raised in foster care end up finishing high school. In New York City, only a quarter of kids who have spent time in foster care actually graduate from high school in four years.

Why are we so fixated on getting kids a college degree when they often don’t have even more basic skills? The tendency to believe that college can make up for other societal inequalities (which has been the rationale for race-based affirmative action) is widespread.

But college is not magic. Universities cannot make up for 13 years of bad schools or incompetent teachers or parents who don’t even bother sending their kids to school on a regular basis. It is true that some former foster youth who manage to make it to college have had trouble paying for expenses or need a place to stay during college breaks (or when COVID-19 shuts down a school). But these kids are the exception, not the rule. 

The attempt to provide mental health care or other kinds of supportive services to these kids can certainly be useful. Even more so than the average 18-year-old, former foster kids often don’t have any idea how to live on their own. Depending on where they were living, they may not know how to clean or cook a basic meal or do their own laundry. 

But the mental health problems and, frankly, addiction issues that some of these kids are suffering from have deep roots — roots that may be beyond the capacity of a campus therapist to handle. Prior to ending up in foster care, they may have experienced years of abuse or chronic neglect. They may have been living with families suffering from mental illness or addiction, but were repeatedly left there by employees of child welfare agencies who hoped the family could be brought back together.

A recent class-action lawsuit against the state of Indiana’s Department of Children’s Services documents a number of cases in which kids who were suffering from sexual abuse were repeatedly returned to their abusers or to knowing bystanders who failed to protect them in the first place. If you do this to a child enough times, their trauma grows and their mental health problems will probably make it all but impossible for them to find an adoptive home. 

When explaining why he supported the Fostering Success in Higher Education Act, Davis, the Illinois congressman, cited Frederick Douglass’ words: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Which makes sense. But the truth is that building strong children is awfully hard to do when the children in question are practically adults.  

The problem of kids aging out is among the hardest to solve in the field, but that is largely because we didn’t solve the problem earlier.