Torosian is CEO of Promises2Kids, a nonprofit founded as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation. She lives in Talmadge.
A group of San Diego economists and business leaders were asked last month if two free years of community college is a good way to grow the middle class. While the panel split almost evenly — seven said no and six said yes — the question prompted our leadership at Promises2Kids to think about education and career outcomes for the current and former foster youth we have worked with, particularly those who have been able to successfully transition from a traumatized childhood to achieve the milestone of economic mobility, and how there might be some lessons in that approach for the larger population.
Foster youth have access to resources and grants that cover the cost of a community college or a four-year education. However, my experience as the CEO at Promises2Kids has found that a financial investment alone was not sufficient for a youth to succeed.
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If youth who were in foster care, or remain in California’s Extended Foster Care program, have access to resources that can serve as their investment, what is the key missing ingredient that might keep them from being successful? It is that support system that other youth have from family, friends and other positive adult relationships.
California Community Colleges, the largest system of higher education in the United States, serves about 30,000 current or former foster youth, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office’s NextUp report.
In April, that report noted that “Foster youth are one of the most vulnerable student populations at California’s community colleges. They enter the community college system with significant barriers. A disproportionately large percentage of current and former foster youth live in poverty. Many are homeless or housing insecure once they leave the foster care system, which causes them to have greater school mobility. Challenges such as these lead to lower academic performance and credit enrollment for foster youth, which may render them more likely to be ineligible for financial aid and compounds their challenges toward college completion and success.”
Therefore, without an adequate support infrastructure and personalized wraparound services, foster youth face a significant uphill battle to successfully complete their community college education and ultimately improve their social and economic mobility.
After 20 years of working in the post-secondary space, I know these facts all too well: Consistent support and caring guidance are what is needed to help youth understand the short- and long-term impacts of their choices and make better decisions that lead to stability and self-sufficiency. So what is the key missing ingredient that might keep them from being successful?
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More than one panelist in the group cited above identified the need for vocational/technical schools to provide academic and technical credentials and work experience with a targeted career path as a way to grow the middle class. We could not agree more, but we also know that most of the youth we work with do not know anyone with those kinds of jobs, and without one-on-one support, do not know how to get to those opportunities and stick with them all the way into long-term employment.
It is not easy. Sometimes there are too few choices, sometimes too many. There is always too much paperwork. Of course, making community college free would cut down administrative overload, and we would love to see that happen.
What it comes down to is the human element, the understanding that youth — from those coming out of foster care to others in mid-to-low-income environments faced with the options of continuing education — have common needs to address. I have found that mentoring is the key. A 2009 study by Michelle R. Munson and J. Curtis McMillen about mentoring in older youth transitioning from foster care — supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health — explained, “Mentoring relationships, or consistent connections between caring non-parent adults and children, can be life changing. Whether it is through structured programs or through relationships that develop on their own, mentoring has been shown to benefit youth. Emerging theories postulate that these benefits may occur through a variety of mediating processes, such as changes in social and emotional development, cognitive development, identity development and all the above.”
We believe foster youth, and youth in general, need clear options available to them, the resources to decide which of these options will provide them with the best path forward, and the support systems to make this happen.