Foster care, homelessness are higher education hurdles

University of Georgia

A college education is estimated to add $1 million to a person’s lifetime earning potential, but for some students the path to earning one is riddled with obstacles. That journey is even more difficult for students who have been in the foster care system or experienced homelessness, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

But the more college administrators and faculty know about these students’ problems, the more they can do to ease the burden.

Getting into universities in the first place can frequently be a challenge for students who’ve had unstable home lives, said David Meyers, co-author of the study.

“Research tells us that every time a student moves from one foster care placement to another, they lose six months of educational progress,” said Meyers, a public service associate in the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. “That’s a pretty serious setback. It’s a challenge for them to participate in after-school activities or athletics. Their college resume is not going to be as strong as those students who don’t face those same challenges.”

It’s a similar struggle for students who’ve experienced homelessness. For those who beat the odds, getting into college is just the start of a whole new set of hurdles. The added stressors of having to figure out how to pay for courses, books and housing once they get there–something many of their classmates don’t have to think about–take a tremendous toll.

“Having to act like an adult when you’re still a kid presents huge challenges for students trying to get into college,” said Kim Skobba, co-author of the paper and an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “But then when you get to college, you’re still on your own.”

Entirely on their own

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, focuses on the experiences of 27 college students, all attending four-year institutions, who had been in foster care, experienced homelessness or both. The researchers conducted a series of three in-depth interviews with each participant over the course of one academic year, and several clear themes emerged.

These students all had to “get by” largely on their own. They often were without parental guidance or support during high school, and in college they were entirely on their own. Many took jobs, sometimes going to school full time while also working full or nearly full-time hours.

One student described having six classes while also working 40 hours a week, saying, “I kept breaking down. … I was staying up to about 2 or 4 in the morning doing homework and waking up at 7.” (This type of experience was more common among students who had been homeless than those who were in foster care at the time of their high school graduation.)

One of the biggest expenses for all the students in the study was paying for and maintaining stable housing. Eleven of them experienced at least one period of homelessness since beginning college, living in their cars or couch surfing.

Another constant issue was finding money for books and food. Even with scholarship support, many of the students would ask professors whether the book was essential for success in their course and if so would borrow a friend’s book or even one of the professor’s copies, if possible.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these stressors made it difficult for students to focus on their academics.

“It takes a mental and emotional toll on these students,” Meyers said. “We think about it in financial terms, but it really, I think, also shows up in sort of this constant emotional challenge. Being thoughtful, being vigilant, never really having the luxury of being able to set it aside.”

Finding solutions

Institutions like UGA are taking steps to address this issue, with programs that provide emotional support while connecting students to resources they might otherwise not know exist.

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization/author(s)and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.