Every year, 23,000 youth age out of foster care without being adopted and lack the financial, emotional and physical support needed to get through college.
Only around half of foster youth in America graduate high school and according to the U.S. Department of Education, 70% of foster youth want to go to college, but only two thirds enroll. Of those who make it to college, less than 3% graduate.
Aubrey Myers, coordinator of the Transition to Adulthood Living program for foster youth in Utah, said there are resources such as scholarships and grants available to help foster youth get an education or vocational training. However, youth don’t always take advantage of those opportunities.
“It’s overwhelming to be in foster care and as a youth a lot of stuff can come your way,” Myers said. “If I’m really in that hard place and I just want away from the state, I may be looking for a way to get out of foster care instead of ‘Oh, look at all these educational opportunities’.”
Though foster youth may get the information they need to apply for scholarships and other aid in college, Myers said it can be overwhelming while they’re trying to transition to adult life and living independently.
“A lot of times these kids, once they get out of these scary places, just want to get on with their lives,” Myers explained.
Trauma, lack of encouragement and even distrust of authority can make it difficult for former foster youth to want to move forward with their education.
Empowerment from education: former foster kids at BYU share their experiences
Anna LaTour from Malone, New York, and Madylynn Hyer from Provo, are current BYU students who spent time in the foster care system growing up.
LaTour and Hyers are unique cases for a few reasons. Both were adopted as teenagers, which isn’t as common as younger children. A study by Partners for Our Children found teenagers accounted for less than 10% of all adoptions.
Both are on their way to graduating with a degree from a four-year university, which will put them in the 3% of former foster youth who complete a college degree.
LaTour, a junior studying journalism, said despite the struggles and trauma she still deals with because of her childhood, a college education has been well worth it.
“Education saved me. Being literate saved me,” she said. “Because when you can speak your mind and you can put your feelings to words, you get what you want.”
For LaTour, school pushed her to excel and gave her a space to focus on her own needs. She said reading was an escape during her childhood and teenage years, while she navigated a difficult family dynamic and the stress of bouncing between foster homes.
“A lot of foster kids, when their parents are not there and they have siblings, they assume the part of a parent,” LaTour said, speaking to her own experience and that of many other foster youth. “When you do that, you basically put your needs aside.”
As a young adult, LaTour is trying to live out experiences she missed in childhood, which she says feels ‘Benjamin Button-esque.’
“I’m trying to have fun now,” she said. “It took me the longest time to open up and just be a kid and have fun.”
LaTour said growing up too quickly can have a negative impact on a child’s educational and even social development. She often struggled to fit in with her peers because of her life in and out of the foster system.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends because I was worried about what’s happening at home,” she said. “That also contributes to focus in school, like, cause how can you write about and like a history paper when you have to worry about food.”
Myers said this is a common experience with children and youth entering the foster care system.
“When all you’ve got to do is survive the day, you don’t tend to concentrate on academics that well,” he explained.
Without an emotionally or sometimes physically safe environment, Myers sees the children he works with spending most of their life in “survival mode,” while children with a positive environment have the luxury of looking to the future.
“A lot of our youth don’t have the ability to sit down and say where do I see myself in ten years when they’ve had to say how do I see myself surviving today,” he said.
Hyer, a sophomore in the family studies program, had similar difficulties in school before entering the foster care system and being adopted in high school.
“When I was in junior high, like before going into foster care, I just didn’t attend school as much,” Hyer said. “I didn’t have the motivation, like I didn’t want to go to college and I just didn’t care and was kind of depressed.”
Hyer said she thinks without a supportive family to encourage them and provide consistent financial support, many foster youth don’t see the value of college. Thanks to supportive case workers and adoptive parents, Hyer said she was able to get back on track and discover she loved to learn in high school.
With a year of college under her belt, she said she’s more aware of the opportunities education provides.
“I feel like it’s prepared me to like, do so much more in my life,” she said, “like be able to attend BYU and to write about things that I’m thinking or feeling.”
With a major in family studies, Hyer is planning on becoming a social worker. She said her experience with case workers and judges who worked to get the best outcome for her was a major influence in her decision.
“I want to help kids who are in the same situation that I was,” she said.
Inspired by the early 20th century “muckraker” journalists, LaTour also wants to use her education to become an advocate for the voiceless.
“If you want to know how to empower a person, you give them a voice,” she said. “That’s how you can free a person.”
LaTour wants to encourage foster youth to see the opportunities that come from education.
“What kids need is hope,” LaTour said. Hope, and the freedom to just be kids and “focus on yourself and what you want, and cultivate that and not feel guilty.”
LaTour explained that taking on more responsibility at a young age made it hard for her to focus on her own needs and goals. She said she hopes kids in foster care can realize education isn’t a selfish or unattainable goal.
On the contrary, she said, it could be exactly what these youth need to get a leg up.
“It could literally change things,” she said.
Fostering teens and offering support
According to Myers, helping foster youth succeed in college may start with helping teenagers in foster care feel encouraged, supported and seen.
Myers said teenagers can be daunting for foster families, since teens aren’t as “moldable” as younger kids. However, families who foster teens can be more successful if they take the time to understand them and what they’ve been through.
“We really need to have foster parents who are open to older children, open to children with more specialized needs,” he said. “Those are the hardest children to place.”
At the end of the day, Myers said foster youth need parents who are willing to say, “I understand that this is where this youth is at, I’m willing to work with that. I’m wiling to hang in there with them.”