05.01.2024

Supporting College Bound Students in Graduation Success

“How am I going to pay for college?”

“What do I want to study?

“Do I even want to go to college?”

These are some of the questions on the minds of high school juniors and seniors in Treehouse’s Graduation Success program. For youth in foster care, pursuing higher education can be an overwhelming journey, filled with excitement, choices and endless challenges. That journey is shaped not only by their ambitions but also the support systems and resources available to them.

The Graduation Success program pairs Washington youth in foster care between 8-12th grade with a Treehouse Education Specialist who provides educational support and access to resources. The needs and level of support wanted by each young person will vary, so Education Specialists work one-on-one with participants to create their own plan for high school completion and beyond, build problem-solving and self-advocacy skills and connect them to resources like tutoring, credit retrieval and college and career prep.

“Education Specialists start bringing up plans for the future when participants are in their junior and senior years,” said Leslie Berger, Treehouse Education Specialist supporting youth in the Bellevue School District. “I let the student bring up college and go from there. Many times, when a student finds a good program, they get excited and bring it up on their own.”

Finances Are the Leading challenge to Higher Education

Youth in foster care often face a variety of challenges and barriers when seeking higher education. Finances is one Education Specialists hear most often. With what many Treehouse participants have called the “revolving door” of adults in their lives, they may have little confidence in their ability to navigate the complexities of higher education, financial aid and other needed paperwork.

The mental toll of growing up in foster care can present significant hurdles to college as well. For many of the students in Graduation Success, the transient nature of their living situations disrupts their academic progress. Trauma and adversity experienced during childhood can manifest as self-doubt or a lack of belief in their own potential, getting in the way of their ambitions or preventing them from having post-secondary ambitions at all.

Access to educational opportunities can also be a major barrier for youth in foster care, particularly in comparison to their peers from more privileged backgrounds. Leslie said that in affluent communities, such as where she works in Bellevue, where resources abound and college attendance is the norm, youth in foster care may feel overlooked in discussions about post-secondary education. The lack of consistent family support or advocacy can keep them from opportunities such as college visits and extracurricular activities.

How Treehouse Supports Higher Education Goals

“For some students, I sit literally side by side with them and help with filling out college applications,” said Leslie when talking about support for youth applying to colleges. “For others, it’s more about keeping track of dates to remind them. Some are so independent; they just want someone to celebrate with.”

High school is also a time for exploring careers, regardless of whether they plan to attend college or not. Education Specialists take students through that process of discovery depending on if they already know what career they want. For those that do, they work backward to determine what steps they need to take to get there through research and informational sessions with individuals who have the career they want. For others, they want the college experience and plan to attend regardless, Leslie said.

Treehouse participant Sebastian will be attending Eastern Washington University in the fall – congratulations, Sebastian!

In addition to college applications, Education Specialists support young people with navigating the complexities of financial aid. Programs such as Passport to Careers and the College Bound Scholarship lessen the financial burden of enrolling and attending college, but applying can be a complicated process to attempt on their own. Scholarships may still be needed if the available programs don’t provide the full amount needed.

Together with social workers and the youth’s caregiver, Education Specialists can recommend scholarships and find funding that would be a good fit for the student. Leslie also noted that when caregivers are invested and supportive in the college readiness process, such as visiting colleges and going with the student to informational sessions, their presence helps ground and calm the student through what can be a nerve-wracking process.

Leslie’s advice for youth in foster care thinking about attending college? Talk to your Education Specialist. “It’s a lot to dive in to on your own, but having someone to pursue it with is huge. Be curious, mention things so you can explore what options there are. It’s not fun advice, but if you are open to going to college, try to keep your GPA as high as possible so you’re best set up to reach your goals.”

Resources for Youth in Foster Care Considering Higher Education

For almost 20 years, Washington state has been providing increased financial aid assistance and guidance to college bound youth in foster care and their caregivers.

The Passport to Careers program is a resource specifically tailored to support college-bound students transitioning out of foster care. It provides assistance navigating higher education, with support around academic guidance, financial aid and mentorship.

The College Bound Scholarship offers eligible students the opportunity to receive financial aid to cover tuition, fees and a small book allowance at participating colleges and universities in Washington state. The program not only eases the financial burden of attending college but also provides academic and career counseling to help youth in foster care navigate the college application process and succeed academically once enrolled.

The Washington State Governors’ Scholarship for Foster Youth is a scholarship program that supports young people from foster care continue their education and earn a college degree. Scholarship award amounts range from $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the college of attendance. Selected students can access the annual scholarship for up to five years to complete undergraduate studies. Students must be enrolled full time and maintain satisfactory academic progress to renew the scholarship each year.

Fostering Scholars at Seattle University provides comprehensive resources and personalized support to ensure academic success. It offers financial assistance, academic advising and career guidance tailored to the unique needs of students from foster care backgrounds. It also fosters a strong sense of community and belonging through mentorship programs, workshops and networking opportunities.

The UW Champions program at the University of Washington provides a range of resources and services tailored to the unique needs of its participants, including academic advising, financial assistance, career development support and community-building activities. The program prioritizes equity and access, ensuring that students from foster care and homeless backgrounds have the necessary tools and support to succeed in their educational journey at the University of Washington.

How To Get Involved

As a youth in foster care or caregiver

If you or someone you know has lived experience in the foster care system and are under the age of 22, you can visit the Our Services page for more information on our programs and their eligibility requirements.

As a supporter

There are a number of ways that you can support youth experiencing foster care, including hosting a drivevolunteering, making a purchase from our wishlist or making a financial contribution to Treehouse. Visit the Take Action page for more information.

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