Navigating College Access Barriers for Students in Foster Care

I have had the privilege of serving as the Appalachian College Advising Corps Adviser at Marjorie Williams Academy (Williams) for nearly two years. Williams is a small K-12 charter school located on the campus of the Crossnore Home for Children in Crossnore, NC. The majority of the students at Williams are full-time residents of the Crossnore Home for Children and are in custody of the state. Students at Williams Academy and students in the foster care system, particularly those living in group homes and other community-living placements, face significant challenges and barriers to post-secondary education that the majority of high school students will never have to encounter. It takes flexibility, dedication, and creativity as an adviser to navigate these obstacles, but when the right approach is followed, magic can happen! 

Students at Williams and in foster care have all experienced trauma and immensely adverse circumstances such as death of parents or custody-holding family members, parental neglect and absence, parental drug addiction, or patterns of abuse within an unsafe home environment. This trauma alone is a barrier to post-secondary education because these students typically struggle with mental health concerns and have had little time or energy to focus on post-secondary planning. Many have a sense of hopelessness in regards to their futures. In conjunction with this, most residential students at Williams Academy have been bounced between various foster placements since they were first removed from their parents and families. Many of the students I have worked with at Williams Academy have even had a change in placement in the middle of the year as we are working together. Frequently changing homes and school systems makes maintaining academic standards and retaining class information difficult. This affects our student’s GPAs which limits the number of post-secondary opportunities available to them.

From what I have observed, I would say the largest barrier students in the foster care system face in access to post-secondary education is a general lack of resources and guidance. Students with a more traditional background typically have the opportunity to seek advice and guidance from parents or family members on basics of adulthood such as post-secondary education, financial planning, employment, housing, transportation, and resource acquisition. Many students in the foster care system have virtually no consistent individuals to go to for support in these aspects of life. Additionally, students in the foster care system typically have to provide for themselves financially immediately upon aging out of the system at 18 years old. They are leaving high school and the foster care system completely alone, unsure of how to navigate the world, and equipped with minimal financial resources or financial literacy. This, naturally, makes the concept of college and living on their own frightening and ambiguous. 

Working with Williams Academy students to navigate these barriers is both challenging and rewarding. Advising Williams Academy students generally requires more time and effort. I am there to advise students every step of the way. For students planning to pursue post-secondary education, we begin with extensive college and career exploration and discuss academic match and personal fit, location, cost, academic programs, and career opportunities within certain fields of study. Ideally, we will begin in the student’s sophomore or junior year because many residential students at Williams are hesitant to commit to a post-secondary plan and like to have a full understanding of their options. Targeting students early has also allowed me time to build a trusting and friendly rapport with them, which is imperative to successful advising with each student. Once a decision is made, assistance with college applications and FAFSA can take place if the plan involves the pursuit of post-secondary education. Students in the foster care system file the FAFSA as independents and automatically receive an EFC of 0 and a full Pell Grant. 

Once a plan is in place and logistics such as admissions applications and financial aid are in motion, socio-emotional support, resource connection, and pulling in outside support become imperative. These students need a guiding force to help them discuss their fears and make sure that they have all of the information and resources they need to succeed beyond high school and their time at the Crossnore Home. During this phase, pulling other school staff and the student’s case managers and social workers becomes important as well to make sure they have a team standing behind them to help shape the details of their plan such as budgeting, transportation access, and housing. Social workers and case managers can also help with connections to financial resources for students aging out of foster care and pursuing further education such as NC Reach or NC Education and Training Vouchers (ETV). 

The residential students at Marjorie Williams Academy and other students in foster care placements may have a more difficult road to post-secondary education, but when they are able to formulate their plan and head off in the pursuit of their dreams, the reward is magical. I have worked with students who have come from some of the most challenging backgrounds and circumstances I have encountered, who are now finding hope and excitement for their futures and are given the best possible odds of succeeding and finding contentment, happiness, and independence. It is an honor and a privilege to serve the students and staff at Marjorie Williams Academy and contribute to the mission of post-secondary education access for students in foster care. 

By Kallie Kressly, Avery County HS and Marjorie Williams Academy adviser

Published: Apr 22, 2022 10:54am