The US Department of Education reports that approximately 400,000 children and youth are in foster care at any given time. According to a 2015 study, over 70% of 15 to 19 year old youth in foster care expressed a desire to attend college, yet less than 10% of foster youth end up attending college.

In an effort to support the educational goals of foster youth, colleges and universities around the United States having been implementing Guardian Scholars programs to increase student success in higher education. The term “Guardian Scholar” typically refers to programs that provide support and resources to former foster youth to increase their success in higher education.

The good news – support programs like these work.

A study done by the University of Chicago showed that when foster care is extended beyond 18, foster youth are more likely to have completed at least one year of college compared to their counterparts. Furthermore, California College Pathways found that in California, “nearly three times as many foster youth scholars who participate in campus support programs remain in college than their peers nationwide”. What’s the common theme here? Support.

Whether you already have a former foster youth support program, or are looking to start one, we outline five crucial components to running an impactful program. We took a look at programs all over the country, as well as reports and findings on effectiveness, and found these common factors in the most successful programs.


  1. Customized Orientation Program

Studies show a major factor that contributes to low college attendance of foster youth is a lack of college preparation. While its important to prepare ALL students for their first year of college (or their first year at the particular college or university), support and preparations for foster youth is extremely necessary for their success.

Many former foster youth secure part-time jobs to help them finance their education, so providing a flexible orientation option that can work with their schedule is important. By offering an online orientation, you can ensure flexibility AND allow students to access the information in the future in case they forget a deadline or resource.

Developing orientation materials that are specific to issues that foster youth may face can help them overcome barriers and feel supported by their new home. Orientation topics and resources should include:

  • Key financial aid dates, types of aid available, state and federal support programs, and assistance with completing applications and forms
  • Housing information like year-round housing programs, support programs in the community, and even basic needs like meals, transportation, and health insurance
  • Dedicated academic advising, where courses and schedules are planned to meet the needs of each particular student
  • How to access free health and mental health services on and off campus
  • Connections to community agencies/providers


  1. Financial Support and Resources

 Financial resources are vital to the success of foster youth in higher education. There are a variety of resources and support that many former foster youth students qualify for – but often, additional support is needed to FIND the resources and to ensure they are applied for properly.

For many, family support isn’t available to help guide them through processes like applying for FAFSA by the deadline. Some youth also have trouble filling out applications because they simply don’t know information like their mother’s social security number. Hurdles like these can cause huge setbacks to foster youth, and in some cases prevent them from enrolling in college. Ensuring that foster youth are aware of all types of aid available, what they need to do to be eligible, and how to complete forms should all be mandatory parts of financial aid support provided through campus programs.

Programs like the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education (CARE), Disabled Student Programs and Services, and TRIO can all make a huge difference in the success of foster youth. In fact, research shows that students that were supported through EOPS were more likely to have completed a degree or transferred in three years compared to non-EOPS students.


  1. Encourage campus engagement and leadership opportunities

 When students engage in curricular and curricular activities, studies show a positive correlation between higher GPAs and a better perception of the overall academic experience. By making former foster youth aware of the different opportunities for them to engage in campus life, they will develop a greater sense of community as well as collaborative and leadership skills.

At CSU Fullterton’s Guardian Scholars Program, students are given unique opportunities to volunteer for local non-profit efforts and serve as Student Ambassadors around campus. Getting students involved right when they get to campus can help establish a feeling of belonging, and greatly benefit their overall experience at a college or university.

If your campus doesn’t have any clubs or volunteering opportunities specific to former foster youth, making them aware of all types of clubs and organizations on campus can also be a great way to get students involved. Providing success stories of other students engaged in campus and allowing former foster youth to speak with current students can help encourage their participation.


  1. Mentorship Program

 One-on-one mentorship can be extremely beneficial in not only the academic success of foster youth, but also their overall wellbeing.

Many Guardian Scholar or former foster youth support programs offer a mentorship aspect as part of their program. Mentorship programs should clearly outline the role of both the mentor and the mentee, and any commitments (for example, one year minimum). Sacramento State and UC Davis outline some good examples of “setting guidelines” for your program for students. Mentorship programs should also have an established program manager, whether that’s a volunteer student or a staff member, to ensure program success.

It can also be helpful to provide an orientation or online training (so they can take at their convenience!) to mentors and mentees including on program goals, participant roles, best practices, and what to expect from the program. By using features like Comevo’s pathways, you could provide relevant information depending on participant type (mentor or mentee). Many programs also require an application that includes screening questions that can help the program director make the best matches.

Since mentorship programs take time and effort from participants, establish an “elevator pitch” of why participants should join. Developing success stories from past participants is a great way to showcase the program’s impact.


  1. Identify a program champion

For any program to succeed, there needs to be a “champion” to ensure the success of all parts of the program. This champion, whether it is a team or an individual, should oversee the various aspects of the program and assess its affect of the success of foster youth.

While there are a growing number of program available (at state and nationwide levels), many foster youth are still not enrolled in these programs – which may be due to a lack of awareness or a lack of support for applying. Reaching out and identifying students that many qualify for your campus program or other state/federal programs should be an initiative of the program champion.

In order to have continued support from the campus, the program champion should outline goals for the program, key performance indicators, and establish a process of measuring success (through anonymous surveys, retention rates, academic success). There is a wide variety of resources and templates available for program champions, including assistance on raising funding, on the California Community College’s website, which can be useful to institutions outside of California as well.