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Chapter 9

From Foster Care to College Student: Addressing the Need for Equity, Access and Inclusion in Higher Education

By Christine Lynn Norton & Toni Watt 

Human diversity in social and educational systems has often been undervalued and threatened by problems with equity, access and inclusion. In particular, there is a growing body of literature criticizing higher education as an elite institution, with significant class and cultural biases towards middle and upper class white students (Lehmann 90). In fact, institutions of higher education have been accused of being “businesses that are more concerned with their own financial well-being than with educating students or serving communities” (Freeland ¶ 1). In order to combat this negative perception, we have broadened our view of equity, access and inclusion in higher education; yet, there are still college students whose intersectionality of race, ethnicity, gender/gender expression, sexual orientation, poverty, first-generation college student status and complex trauma go largely ignored. These students are young adults with lived experience in the foster care system. According to the Children’s Bureau, over 687,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care in 2016. Nationally, about 27,000 of those children “age out” or leave foster care at the age of 18, if they have not been adopted or placed in alternative care (Patel et al 4). In Texas alone, over 1000 college-aged youth age out of foster care every year, often with little support or structure and at high risk for negative outcomes (Patel et al 8).

Foster youth in the education system are a distinct subgroup of students who are at high risk for poor academic performance and failure, particularly in higher education. Complex trauma, placement and educational instability, and mental health challenges have led to negative educational outcomes for youth in foster care (Leigh et al 4). Likewise, the historic bias and elitism of higher education have led even the most talented youth, who are not white and middle-to-upper class, feel that they are not college material--that they don't fit in (Lehmann 99). This self-doubt is nowhere more present than with foster youth (Watt et al 1412). This feeling of not fitting in manifests itself in high school drop-out rates, as well as low college enrollment. Nationally, only 50% of foster youth graduate high school (NFYI ¶3), and only 10% will enroll in college (Cohn et al 1). The college retention and graduation rates of foster youth are even worse, with research showing only 2-3% of foster youth attain a bachelor’s degree (NFYI ¶2). Unfortunately, the outcomes for foster youth who do not succeed academically are not promising. 


The foster care to prison pipeline is a very real phenomenon, and we are fast losing qualified and capable young people to homelessness and incarceration. According to the Juvenile Law Center (JLC), former foster youth face a disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. This is due to physical and sexual abuse, harsh discipline practices in foster homes and schools, academic failure, homelessness and mental illness (Krinsky 324). The problem is so severe thatone quarter of foster care alumni will become involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care (JLC 1). Furthermore, the foster care-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects youth of color, LGBTQ-identified youth, and youth with mental illnesses. 

Yet despite these risk factors, 70-84% of all foster youth report wanting to attend college, and more foster youth persist in attaining a GED than the general population (NWGFCE 2). These facts reveal a drive and motivation to pursue higher education that is often overlooked in the research. Though it is important to know what the barriers to success are, it is also important to move away from “deficit-focused inquiry” and recognize resilience and other strengths that former foster care students possess (Fox 4). Youth with lived experience in the foster care system can be highly persistent in the face of overwhelming obstacles, especially when given opportunities to succeed. They also care deeply about giving back to society or “paying it forward,” in order to help others. These resilient qualities align perfectly with Duckworth and Quinn’s definition of grit as “passion and persistence for long-term goals” (166). According to the latest education research, grit, accompanied with a growth mindset, helps students persist in the face of adversity, a highly desirable quality for success in higher education and in life (Hochanadel et al 48).


The mission of Texas State University includes embracing a diversity of people and ideas, guided by the values of service and leadership for the public good. Providing support to students with lived experience in the foster care system certainly aligns with this mission; however, the idea of campus support programs for former foster youth in higher education is still relatively new. Currently, only about 23 US states provide some kind of tuition and fee waiver (Hernandez 2); however, not all of these state offer campus support programs along with financial assistance.  Texas offers tuition and fee waiver programs at public colleges and universities for students that the Texas Legislature has identified as “warranting special consideration related to paying for higher education costs” (THECB ¶1). This includes youth who either aged out of or were adopted out of foster care. Though the tuition and fee waiver is a huge incentive for students to attend college, financial support alone is not enough to ensure the academic success of former foster youth in higher education. In fact, in a 2011 study conducted by Day et al, “former foster youth were significantly more likely to drop out of college before the end of their first year than their first-generation peers that had not been in foster care” (Courtney et al 33).

For this reason, in 2010, a campus-wide support initiative emerged to increase the recruitment, retention and graduation rates of former foster youth who enroll at Texas State University (TXST). The FACES (Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success) program was created, and has become a nationally recognized, research-based campus support program for foster youth. Texas State University was one of the first universities in Texas to address the needs of this population, and currently serves approximately 120 students who qualify for the tuition and fee waiver. FACES is housed in Office of Retention, Management and Planning, with support from collaborative partnerships with the School of Social Work, the Sociology Department, the Foster Care Advisory Council and other key campus and community stakeholders. We have learned that these interdisciplinary partnerships are critical for effectively serving these students because they are not easily folded in to the standard retention model due to their history of complex trauma. 

Who are FACES students?

Students at Texas State who are involved in the FACES program all have lived experience in the foster care system. About 40% of these students aged out of care, and about 60% were adopted out of care.  60% of FACES students identify as female, and 40% identify as male. This also mirrors the foster care research showing that females coming out of foster care are more likely to enroll and find success in higher education (Courtney et al 36). 28% of all FACES students are transfer students, and 43% are first generation college students. 76% of FACES students did not have a parent who completed at Bachelor’s degree. The racial and ethnic makeup of FACES students shows that 32% of FACES students identify as White, non-Hispanic, 25% African American, 11% Hispanic, 30% Biracial and 4% identify as “other.” A common characteristic for all FACES students is that they have experienced trauma. This mirrors the literature about students with lived experience in foster care. According to the Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study Executive Summary, former foster children are almost twice as likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as U.S. war veterans (Pecora 2).

What Services Does FACES Provide?

In order to increase recruitment, retention and graduation rates, FACES provides support to its diverse student membership through a trauma-informed, strengths-based approach that focuses on safety, inclusivity and engagement. The program provides faculty/staff mentors for former foster youth, advocacy and one-on-one support, a book lending library, a student organization, academic coaching and peer mentoring, social and community service events, and a variety of other retention activities and trainings to promote social connectedness, peer support and life skills. 


Supporting former foster youth is in line with the diversity and inclusion goals of Texas State University’s strategic plan, and contributes to the larger public good. When foster youth are supported by strong practices, policies and educational opportunities, it is possible to counteract the negative effects of abuse, neglect, separation, and lack of permanency experienced by youth in foster care. As Green stated: “There is no greater work more urgent, more exhausting, and more spiritually rewarding than helping to create opportunities to engage, inspire and ignite foster care alumni. Many of whom have had a lifetime legacy of being impoverished, ignored, as well as unwanted. Together…[we] can create a new reality of hope and global opportunities of economic and social mobility” (¶6). 

The FACES campus support initiative is a model of successful community building and retention for a diverse and vulnerable group of students. Though this group of students comprises less than 3% of the entire college student population at Texas State University, they represent a group of students for whom education can be a life-changing protective factor.  In fact, when foster care alumni have the dual support of the tuition and fee waiver, combined with the assistance of a campus support program, they can be highly successful in higher education. According to an earlier study of FACES outcomes, despite their demographic vulnerabilities and lower levels of academic performance, the retention and graduation rates of former foster youth were almost equivalent of those of typical Texas State students (Watt et al 1415). Recent retention data of foster care alumni from the freshman to sophomore year continues to improve, as well. In the fall semester of 2016 (academic year 2017), 55% of the previous year’s freshmen foster care alumni re-enrolled as sophomores, marking progress over the previous year’s 52% retention rate and the 42% retention rate recorded in the fall semester of 2014. Texas State’s foster care alumni students continue to move closer to the university’s overall freshman retention rate of 76%. Likewise, Texas State FACES students’ graduation rate is 49%, just slightly lower than the overall Texas State graduation rate of 56%. However, by contrast, foster care alumni at four-year universities nationally only achieve a 26% graduation rate (Day et al 2).

Not only are academic outcomes changing for former foster youth at Texas State, but the FACES campus support program has also been instrumental in helping former foster youth redefine their identities from deficits to strengths (Watt et al 1411). The FACES program helped support the autonomy of former foster care students and identify and utilize the assets already present in their lives, in particular in the area of peer support. In a 2013 evaluation study of the FACES program, one student stated: “What really blew my mind was that I could come in with a group of people just like me, who had similar experiences, and that we could come together and talk in a non-threatening way and explore our pasts, and have a therapy about it, and have fun with it, and laugh about it. That's different. I've done it with other people but to do it with other people who have lived what I have lived, that is very powerful. And to do it from the other side of the fence, to say yeah, we went through all of that but look where we are now? Now let's laugh about that. That's something that's been able to let me reach back into the past and let some of those things go so that I can propel myself even further on my personal path” (Watt et al 1414).


Though much has been done to create a network of support for Texas State students with lived experience in the foster care system, the fact remains that resources in higher education are scarce, and unfunded mandates like the tuition and fee waiver programs create pressure on public colleges and universities to increase revenue. Because of this pressure, negative perceptions can arise about those receiving these waivers. It should be noted, however, that the exemptions provided by the state for tuition and fees for former foster youth comprise less than 2% of all exemptions (THECB 6). Though generating revenue should certainly not be ignored, the Chronicle of Higher Education reminds us that “we also must be true to our roots in educating young people, seeking the truth, helping communities, and preserving the most important values of our culture” (Freeland ¶ 9). This includes breaking cycles of poverty, abuse and neglect and creating opportunities for students with a history of complex trauma to build resilience through education.

However, what higher education often fails to recognize is the strength in struggle. While some former foster care students (similar to many minority, first generation, LGBTQ students) may not have the same pedigree of traditional college students, they have encountered struggles that have helped them build character, resilience, tenacity and empathy. In short, they have a lot to offer Texas State University, but too often we view student "potential" through such a narrow lens that we don't recognize it. We may have to adopt pedagogical approaches that are more inclusive (e.g. being trauma informed). We may have to support strengths-based programs like FACES, and in doing so, recognize that we are not lowering academic standards, but rather, broadening our view of potential. When we broaden our view of potential and how we can help students achieve it, we take advantage of a richer and wider pool of talent. The purpose of higher education, particularly, public institutions, is not solely to generate revenue (e.g. tuition). The purpose is to educate students, in part, to meet the educational and workforce needs of the state by providing a supply of talented workers and citizens. When we help foster youth discover their strengths, believe in themselves, and prepare them to contribute to their communities, we all succeed. 


There is an African proverb that goes something like this: “Smooth seas do not good sailors make.” We cling to this adage as a meaningful mantra for our FACES students because we want to help them understand that they are uniquely qualified to handle the challenges of college, to be social and entrepreneurial problem-solvers, healers, community builders, and leaders on this campus. After all, they have already been through so much, and the stressors of college pale in comparison to many of their earlier challenges. However, the everyday stressors of college life are often a trigger for students with lived experience in the foster care system. The experience of failing a test or being disrespected by a professor may cause any student difficulty, but for someone with a history of complex trauma, these things can snowball and may even cause the student to drop out without ever reaching out for help. As former foster youth shared in Morten’s qualitative study, “the emotional aspect of anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, etc., is the REAL struggle in attending college, NOT the school work itself”; “To this day I am still struggling with the past and the emotional repercussions of foster care” (75).

Though as academics most of us are not therapists, we all have a moral and ethical obligation to speak with compassion, avoid assumptions, and become informed about the negative impact of trauma on students’ academic performance. We can be strengths-based and broaden our view of student potential in order to fulfill the true mission of higher education, which is “to serve society and advance a public purpose” (Freeland ¶6). In this way, we will learn from our most marginalized students that diversity and inclusion are critical to the mission of Texas State University, not a detraction from it.

About the Authors

Christine Norton

Christine Norton

Christine Norton, PhD, LCSW, is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Texas State University. She received her PhD in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. She has a MA in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a MS in Experiential Education from Minnesota State University-Mankato. Dr. Norton is the Foster Care Liaison Officer to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and helped found FACES (Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success). 

Toni Watt

Toni Watt is a Professor of Sociology at Texas State University. Dr. Watt received her PhD in Sociology with an emphasis in Demography from the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in research methodology, drugs and society, and mental health. Her research is both academic and applied and focuses on improving outcomes for children and youth who have experienced trauma and/or the foster care system.

Toni Watt