CULLOWHEE – I was elated recently when I read an article by NC Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress (“$23 million coming to NC to help public school students experiencing homelessness”) detailing U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s efforts to support homeless students.
The American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Homeless Children and Youth Fund will assist K-12 students who experience homelessness. This is phenomenal news. However, as a university administrator who has committed his life’s work to issues of access and equity in higher education, I believe it’s critical that efforts like this not exclude an often overlooked population.
Right now, there are many, many homeless young people across the U.S. who have a desire to seek higher education. Unfortunately, we generally do a poor job of ensuring that students who are homeless, aged out of the foster care system, wards of the state, or emancipated from their parents have a clear pathway to pursue such a dream.
As a staff member at the University of Alabama, I created Alabama Reach, a program designed to assist students who aged out of foster care. The impetus for this program was a student who arrived at the university with a full scholarship from a donor, but almost nothing else.
The student had graduated high school and was living at a nearby children’s home. A social worker dropped him off at the university’s Advancement Office and left. He did not have summer classes, housing or the basic necessities.
To make matters worse, he was not yet 18. I remember taking him to the housing office, where he needed the signature of a parent or guardian to secure a dorm room. He jokingly asked if Bob Riley, then the governor of Alabama, was going to sign his housing contract.
It is because of this student, that I began to ask, “how many students are there at the University of Alabama who have aged out of foster care?” I went to work to develop programs to support these students and had some success soliciting donations from private sources and even had several conversations with elected officials about legislation to support homeless and foster youth.
Later, I came to North Carolina, where in partnership with the Baptist Children’s Home of North Carolina, I was able to help establish Homebase at Western Carolina University. I saw that we had a need to support homeless and foster youth on campus, and it is because of this partnership that we can provide emergency housing, clothes, food, laundry facilities and much more.
Ultimately however, as helpful as programs like Alabama Reach and Homebase at WCU can be, there is only so much they can do to address what are massive and systemic problems. For instance, one big challenge involves the fact that when students turn 18, tracking mechanisms on this population cease and the public institutions of higher education in North Carolina may not have a way of identifying and supporting them – even when they are on our campuses. We can glean some information from FASFA data, but far from all that we need.
One fact we can see confirmed by the data is that we’re not doing enough right now. While it’s well-established that a college degree can make a huge and positive difference in a person’s earning potential, research shows that only 3% of foster care youth earn a four-year degree, compared to 28.8% of the general population.
This statistic is alarming. Foster youth have already had to deal with the impact of being homeless or possibly moved from foster home to foster home, and very few will be able to achieve a baccalaureate degree, which could be the only way to keep them out of poverty.
The aspirations of foster care youth are similar to those of their peers. They desire to attend college and want to be self-supporting adults at the same rates as their peers but often lack the resources to make it happen. Some will enroll in post-secondary education but will not persist due to financial and housing difficulties. It is difficult to be successful in school when your basic needs cannot be met. Youth that age out of the foster care system lose much of their support system. Caseworkers, social workers, and other adults that have provided support are no longer there. Foster care youth have a background of trauma that is made more difficult when they lose their support system and transition to adulthood.
The American Rescue Plan takes a great initial step at supporting the foster/homeless/orphan population in this time of even greater need. However, we must not turn a blind eye to the continued struggles and challenges these youth face or pretend that the obstacles and disadvantages they deal with vanish magically at 18. Higher education can be a powerful vector for economic and social stability, mobility, and equity. Federal officials should expand the American Rescue Plan to support these students through the critical transition from high school into college and provide resources for those students during their college career.
Dr. Lowell K. Davis, is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success at Western Carolina University.