After 16 years of moving from one foster home to another, Krizia Franklin couldn’t wait to be out on her own when she graduated from high school.
“Nobody wants to be in foster care any longer when you’ve already been told what to do your whole life,” the 28-year-old graduate student said at a recent event for teens in foster care hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Despite her excitement to live on her own, Franklin said the transition from living in a group home with 11 other girls was difficult.
“I was so accustomed to living with so many other people that when I began to live by myself, with one person, I got depressed,” Franklin told the teens. “You are going to feel alone, you’re going to feel lost; you’re going to feel confused. But there’s always help. It’s a matter of, you know, just reaching out and asking for it.”
Youth who were previously in foster care are eligible for a tuition waiver at public colleges in Texas. But just 3.5% earn a degree by the time they’re 24, according to an analysis of state data led by Texas State University. The number dropped to 2.3% in a more recent study that’s not yet published. National statistics for foster care youth are also less than 10%.
Franklin and three other UTSA students who spent time in foster care spoke on a panel about the challenges they experienced and advised the teens on how to overcome them.
Looking back on it now, Franklin wished she’d taken advantage of extended care, which lets young adults stay in foster care after they turn 18.
“And you know why I had wished I had stayed? Money. Yes ma’am,” Franklin said. “I could have been living free in my foster mom’s house. No rent. I could have been having somebody paying my grocery bills.”
Financial aid and housing are the two biggest concerns for students who were previously in foster care, said Christopher Goldsberry, the foster care liaison at UTSA.
The students are usually eligible for Pell grants in addition to the waiver on tuition and fees, but they don’t always know what they qualify for. Researchers in Texas found that almost half of former foster youth enrolled in college aren’t using tuition waivers.
“Your more average, traditional student has usually parents to lean on for support,” said Goldsberry, who has been the university’s liaison since 2008. “These students don’t have that, so in a way we’re almost serving as a parental type of figure. I like the term ‘big brother’ better.”
Lack of Support
UTSA sophomore Caroline Nolen said the best way a college can help former foster youth is to help them connect with people who understand their challenges.
“Having a relationship with someone who’s kind of been there,” Nolen said. “And then with that relationship, when they have concerns or questions or anxieties they can go to that person and stay on track.”
But negative opinions and the turmoil of foster care can make it hard to even get to college.
Nolen said she had friends in foster care who thought they were “too dumb for college,” and Franklin said she had foster parents and other people in authority tell her she would never amount to anything.
“My mom passed away when I was 13 years old when I was in foster care, and after that I had such a rough time. I was so depressed, and I was angry,” Franklin said. “So what did my foster parents label me as? A bad kid.”
Franklin said at first she wanted to prove everybody wrong. But when she landed in juvenile detention at age 16, her latest foster parents fought to keep her out of a lockdown facility.
“I always walked around fighting for myself, and I finally had somebody stand up for me, and I felt indebted to them. I felt like I owed them something,” Franklin said. “And instead of then working towards proving them wrong, I started working towards making somebody proud.”
Inadequate Academic Preparation
Even when students are motivated to get a college degree there are still barriers that can get in the way.
“When young people are moving around to different neighborhoods, different foster homes they’re having to change schools,” said Megan Piel, a UTSA professor of social work that studies ways to support youth transitioning out of foster care. “By the time they get to college they’re sometimes having to do remedial work or other things that prevent them from being able to take on some of the normal coursework right away.”
Goldsberry, the foster care liaison at UTSA, thinks that’s part of the reason the university averages 140 students with foster care tuition waivers in the fall, but drops down to a hundred in the spring.
“They decide ‘I can’t do this.’ Many of them have been told their whole life, as we were discussing in the conference, that ‘you’ll never amount to anything. You can’t go to college.’ And as soon as they fail those first classes that just instantly in their mind validates what they’ve been told,” Goldsberry said.
Meeting the Need
UTSA is launching a resource center to encourage those students and give them more support this fall. The center will have more staff to help Goldsberry reach out to students and connect them with peer mentors, find housing and meet other needs like mental health.
Many foster kids are exposed to violence and other forms of trauma, which Piel said can make learning challenging.
“Unresolved trauma can have a significant impact on learning. We know that it can impact attention. It can impact focus and it can also present triggers … so finding ways to help our young people address that trauma is really important as part of their overall wellbeing,” said Piel, who is helping plan the launch.
Peggy Eighmy, the wife of UTSA President Taylor Eighmy, advocated for funding for the center at the statehouse. The center will be part of a $3.5 million pilot program led by UTSA, with resource centers at UTSA, Texas A&M-San Antonio and the Alamo Colleges.
Eighmy said she thinks higher education is the best place for young adults aging out of foster care because it can help them find a place to belong.
“Beyond just all of the good things that come from a college degree for anybody, I want them to have community. I want them to be part of a tribe. I want them to have people who have a shared experience. I want them to feel valued. I want them to have somewhere to go at Thanksgiving,” Eighmy said.
According to the study led by Texas State University, former foster youth are nearly seven times more likely to graduate when they have access to a campus support center.
The idea is to create a place where students with a history of foster care feel comfortable asking for help — something UTSA graduate student Gina Hill said they’re sometimes reluctant to ask for.
“A lot of people once they get out of care — and I definitely was one of them — I was like, ‘I don’t need any help. I don’t want to talk to no more caseworkers. I’ve been talking to caseworkers for nine years.’ … and then I found myself a statistic. I found myself homeless and on drugs.”
Hill said she wouldn’t be getting her master’s degree today if she hadn’t had the help of caseworkers and advocates.