Courtesy of Western Michigan University
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — New students typically arrive for Western Michigan University’s move-in day in parents’ cars stuffed with clothing, books and computer gear. Some cars pull trailers filled with appliances and furniture.
Contrast that with another sight seen on such days: a plain car with a Michigan state decal pulls up just long enough for a new college freshman to step out. He carries a black garbage bag that holds everything he owns. He’s just aged out of the foster-care system and is all on his own.
“The black garbage bag is like the official luggage of the foster-care system,” said Linda Dunn, wife of WMU President John M. Dunn and a member of Michigan’s Foster Care Review Board.
The paucity of possessions owned by students who age out of the foster-care system echoes another kind of gap in privilege, Dunn said. Students from stable families typically attend college buoyed by parental encouragement, advice, financial help, emotional support and attention to health care. Foster-care students often lack those things, making college success less likely. At WMU, though, efforts are underway to level the playing field for students from foster care, a group increasingly recognized as an underserved segment of the U.S. population.
In most states, kids in foster care who don’t have permanent families are legally emancipated at age 18. Though some states have programs that offer transitional aid, the basic expectation is that these teenagers will fend for themselves in an adult world. For many, such early independence doesn’t go well.
Teens who age out of foster care are at high risk of homelessness, joblessness, illness, incarceration, welfare dependency, early childbearing and physical and sexual victimization, according to Children’s Rights, a national children’s advocacy group that collated results of various studies and surveys from around the nation.
Only about 7 to 13 percent of students from foster care ever go to college. Only about 2 percent graduate, compared to 24 percent of adults in the general population, according to research from Casey Family Programs, a charitable foundation working to improve the lives of children in foster care.
Beating the odds
Courtney Maher doesn't want her life to follow that pattern. Maher, almost 21, is an articulate young woman who will graduate from WMU next April and go straight into a master’s degree program in social work. But Maher was once a hungry, neglected child, removed by the state of Michigan from her violent, drug-addicted parents and placed in foster care. Maher knows her college success beat the odds. She credits a groundbreaking program at WMU for smoothing her way.
The Seita Scholars program provided Maher with counseling, emotional support and valuable work opportunities, along with financial assistance and life skills training. The program is named after John Seita, a former WMU professor who aged out of foster care after 15 different placements and went on to become a professor of social work.
“Western Michigan has an incredibly comprehensive program for former foster-care youth,” said John Emerson of Casey Family Programs, adding that the Seita Scholars program leads the nation in helping former foster-care students succeed in college.
The Seita program provides assistance for WMU students who were in foster care on or after their 14th birthdays. Those who qualify receive financial aid and one-on-one coaching to help them navigate through the challenges of college life. Coaching also helps the students cut through red tape between the foster-care system, Medicaid, community mental health care and other public support systems, said program director Chris Harris.