College is an impossible dream for many black foster children

The University of Texas Tower, Austin. Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune

This is the time of year when hundreds of thousands of high school students begin applying to colleges and universities across the nation. The enrollment of college students has increased by over 28 percent from 2000 to 2016. Despite this growth, issues of college access and completion still exist for underrepresented populations, particularly black foster youth.

Foster youth of all races value college just as much as their peers, with between 70 percent and 80 percent aspiring to enroll in postsecondary institutions. But foster youth encounter several barriers to attending college. Addressing the issue of college access is even more critical for black foster youth who are overrepresented in child welfare systems. Although black children composed only 12 percent of the total population of children in Texas, they represented 22.5 percent of children in foster care.

Completing high school is the first step to accessing postsecondary education. Yet youth in the foster care system complete high school at a rate of 50 percent, compared to their peers, who complete at a rate of 70 percent. The educational performance of foster youth in high school is negatively impacted by several factors, including absences, probations, suspensions and expulsions. Each of these areas contributes to a delay in the educational progress of students and diminishes the odds of high school completion.

During the 2016-2017 school year in Texas, black students composed 12.5 percent of the total student population. It is important to note the disparities in school discipline for black students in Texas relative to their enrollment numbers. Black students represented 31.7 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspensions and 23.2 percent of students receiving in-school suspensions. Additionally, 18 percent of black students were expelled during the year. The percentage of black students referred to disciplinary alternative education programs was 23.5 percent compared to white (20.9 percent) and Hispanic (52.3 percent) students. The enrollment for white and Hispanic students was 28 percent and 52.4 percent respectively.

Placement in the child welfare system is compounded by the issue of race for black foster youth. The data creates a compelling case for policymakers to give greater attention to foster care students who aspire to college degrees. Examining the data using specific categories such as racial/ethnic background is also necessary for institutions to recognize and address the unique challenges black foster youth face in schools. It is unfortunate that two prominent aspects of their identities — black and foster youth — lead to considerable differences in how often they access college.

The educational rigor of a program or the completion of advanced coursework is an indicator to institutions that a student is ready for postsecondary work. The high school preparation of foster youth is lacking, as many are tracked into primary education or not enrolled in rigorous courses due to frequent disruptions in their education because of changes in school placement.

Furthermore, over one-third of foster youth are placed in special education due to mental or behavioral learning disabilities. These statistics should be taken into deep consideration for black foster youth. A recent Hechinger Report concerning the racial gap in special education contends that black and Hispanic children with special needs are less likely to graduate. In 2014-2015 nationally, only 62 percent of black students in special education graduated with diplomas, in comparison to 76 percent of white students, and 62 percent of Hispanic students.

Black youth who are already underserved because of their foster care status have the additional burden of obtaining special needs assistance in under-resourced schools. Again, graduating from high school is the first step toward college enrollment. Yet, getting a diploma is a seemingly impossible feat for many black foster youth.

To be sure, black foster youth are not the only group facing challenges in education. Nevertheless, their identities as youth who are both black and in foster care produce specific circumstances that lessen their odds for enrolling in college. Addressing these issues is a necessary component of increasing the college-going opportunities for these kids.

Researchers recommend embedding a culture of educational attainment and success into the responsibilities of those working with or caring for foster care youth. They suggest schools must shift from viewing foster youth as a problem population not worthy of the proper attention and resources. For black foster students, more measures should be taken to ensure there is a basic level of fair treatment in schools. Examining the “why” of the racial disparities in school discipline and how they are harming these students’ preparation for the future is necessary.

Action should also be taken to close the gaps in graduation rates between black students in special needs education — especially foster youth — and their peers. Exploring and finding solutions to mitigate the underlying reasons why black students are not advocated for or served places them one step closer to equitable outcomes in terms of high school graduation and college access.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Tracie Lowe

Post-doctoral fellow, Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, UT-Austin