new UW-Stout program aims to help foster kids reach college – and excel
For most college students, a free ride, a few bucks, or a shoulder to cry on are only as far away as a call or text to Mom and Dad. But that’s not the case for students who have reached college after aging out of the foster care system. In addition to the legacies of their disrupted childhoods, these young adults have to contend with the challenge of walking into an exhilarating yet frightening new world without the safety net of parental support.
Creating such a net, as well as encouraging more former foster kids to pursue – and stick with – higher education in the first place is the aim of UW-Stout’s new Fostering Success program. “Basically, the goal of this program is to provide support more traditionally offered by a family that could cause them to drop out,” explains Greta Munns, foster youth liaison for UW-Stout’s admissions department. Such support ranges from the tangible (a local laundromat has donated free laundry services to freshmen who are foster care alums) to the less tangible (creating a support network for such students, who often travel below the radar).
The daunting challenges of moving from foster care to college success aren’t abstract for Munns: She spent time in the foster care system during her own teen years, and obtained a degree from UW-Stout with the help of a scholarship from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. A $30,000 grant from the same department will fund the Fostering Success program for 18 months.
"If you’re in foster care you probably have a life that hasn’t let you focus on your education.”– Greta Munns, UW-Stout foster youth liaison
An important part of the program is reaching out to current foster youth, who are often unaware of the grants and scholarships available to them if they go to college. “If someone had told me earlier on (about such aid),” Munns explains, “my motivation in high school would have been much better.” Federal grants in particular can be helpful for former foster youths because their families’ estimated contribution toward their educational costs is nil. But financing isn’t the only problem for these youths, Munn adds: “If you’re in foster care you probably have a life that hasn’t let you focus on your education.” ACT tests and college applications probably aren’t priorities for teens who may bounce from home to home and school to school frequently.
The first event held by Fostering Success was aimed at such youths: Six teens from foster care or group homes attended an overnight camp July 31-Aug. 1 at UW-Stout. The kids got to do some college prep, slept in the dorms, had some fun, and did some bonding, too. As one participant said on an exit survey, “When we all got together I realized I wasn’t the only one with problems and that I need to change my attitude about my past.”
The camp and the entire program are intended to help create a more level playing field for foster youths looking toward college, says Pam Holsinger-Fuchs, UW-Stout’s director of admissions. “We wanted them to leave feeling empowered,” she says.
The Fostering Success program is starting small: This fall, UW-Stout’s student body will have just three incoming freshmen and two or three upperclassmen who are former foster kids. But even these small figures are noteworthy when you consider the dismal statistics about college attainment by ex-foster youths: Only between 7 and 13 percent of young people from foster care pursue higher education, and just 2 percent get bachelor’s degrees, according to a report by Casey Family Programs, a foundation that focuses on reducing the need for foster care. In fact, those who leave foster care are much more likely to end up homeless than in college.
Speaking from her own experience, Munns says UW-Stout is already better than many colleges when it comes to serving foster care alums. Among other things, UW-Stout students get laptop computers as part of their tuition (meaning the laptops’ cost can be covered by students’ grants) and rent their textbooks (which is less costly than buying them). “There’s all these built-in instant equalizers for kids that make it suck a little less,” Munns says bluntly. However, she adds, there’s much more that could be done. While many states, including Minnesota, offer direct aid to former foster students or even waive their tuition, no such programs exist in Wisconsin, she says.
In the meantime, Munns hopes the Fostering Success program can help make going to college a little easier for former foster youths. She wants to ensure they’re remembered with care packages on their birthdays and during final exams and that they have access to an emergency fund to buy needed items such as class materials – and, she hopes, eventually to pay for other unexpected life expenses. “My dream would be that the community rallies around them and says, ‘These are our kids,’ ” she says.
To find out more about the Fostering Success program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.uwstout.edu/admissions/foster-youth.cfm. To learn how you can support the program through the UW-Stout Foundation foundation.uwstout.edu/pages/givings/fostering-success.