Including foster care and homeless students in higher education

The Academic Building on the Texas A&M University campus on March 26, 2018. Photo by Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

Homeless and former foster care students have surfaced on the radars of Texas legislators this year, and Texas institutions of higher education should pay close attention.

The proposed legislation (House Bill 99, Senate Bill 331 and House Bill 809), concerns the support of homeless and former foster care students entering public institutions. Each calls for institutions of higher education to designate at least one employee to assist with those students’ transitions from high school to college. Passing these bills could present significant progress in how Texas institutions support students from increasingly diverse backgrounds.

As many as 70 to 80 percent of foster care children aspire to college. However, only 20 percent enroll in higher education — considerably lower than the 60 percent enrollment rate of their peers. Furthermore, they are more likely to drop out of college than their non-foster care peers, and less likely to attain degrees. Experts on foster care youth contend the low percentage of attrition is due to several factors, including lack of encouragement to pursue college degrees, inadequate preparation for college-level work, financial challenges and ignorance of the resources available to them. 

Homeless students in college face similar challenges that influence their educational outcomes, including residential instability, financial issues and lack of the necessities needed to live and function. Additionally, they deal with the mental stigma of being homeless students, making them less likely to self-identify. Homeless students are generally an “invisible” population on college campuses. 

To be sure, there are homeless and foster care students who have succeeded in college, but not without access to the appropriate resources and personnel support. Texas educators could, with passage of this legislation, intentionally assist more of these students in accomplishing their educational goals.

Scholars have noted that foster and homeless youth do not seek out resources from campus service providers for lack of knowledge. College student service providers are also not typically equipped to meet the unique needs of foster care youth. These bills address this issue mandating that public institutions assign homeless and former foster youth students to a dedicated liaison who is familiar with their specific needs. The legislation also recommends policies and procedures be set in place to ensure the liaisons receive the appropriate professional development.

The bills address temporary housing alternatives between terms for students who are enrolled full-time, and call for institutions of higher education to give priority housing assignments to homeless students. These recommendations are critical, as housing is a substantial issue for former foster care youth and homeless students. Foster youth make up a disproportionate number of homeless youths in Texas. According to data from a 2016 Youth Counts Texas! survey, 37.9 percent of homeless youth had experienced foster care. Access to shelter is one of the foundational psychological needs of all humans; addressing the housing needs of students will directly improve their well-being.

Former foster care youth and homeless students are not well-researched, and frequently not accounted for in programs that address the needs of marginalized or underrepresented students. These bills offer a start.

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