More LA County Foster Kids Are Making It Into College Than Ever Before

Destiney Rodriguez, right, is a Mt. San Antonio College student enrolled in the campus support program for foster youth. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

It's easy for foster kids to get left behind, but an increasing number in L.A. County are making it into community colleges.

Statewide about 16,000 are attending community college; that's significantly more than five years earlier. In L.A. County's 21 community colleges, the number of enrolled foster youth rose from 2,626 students to 4,218 students between 2012 and 2017 — a 60 percent increase.

A variety of state programs are trying to build on that progress to make sure those young people make it all the way through to graduation.

CHANGING THE RULES

Experts believe one big reason for the enrollment surge was California's 2012 decision to extend the age limit for being in foster care from 18 to 21 for those who choose to remain in the system.

Before the change, "18th birthdays were often bittersweet affairs," said Mark Courtney, a University of Chicago researcher who worked in California's foster care system 30 years ago. He remembers youth who ended up in homeless shelters when they turned 18.

"On the one hand it was an important rite of passage, a person becoming an adult," he said. "On the other hand, we essentially kicked them out and rendered many of them homeless at that point."

The college enrollment numbers changed dramatically after the age extension. In the fall of 2012, 11,000 foster youth enrolled in the state's community colleges, according to state community college data. By the fall of 2017, that number had risen to over 16,000.

But it's only been in the last three years that changes in law and funding have created programs to encourage more foster youth to apply and stay in college. Sacramento is spending $17 million this year on such programs.

More research is needed on how well foster youth are doing once they enter community college, said Courtney.

"Folks in California are still learning how to operate a foster care system for adults," he said.

Courtney was the lead author of a report released last year that reviewed what impact the state's foster care reforms are having on the youth in the system. The news is good, he said, but for all the money the state is devoting to these support programs, it needs to know which programs are doing the best job getting foster youth to college graduation.

Researchers need to take the lessons learned from where programs are succeeding and apply them across the board "so that those investments are really paying off for these young people," Courtney said.

He said he's currently conducting research to determine how much progress foster youth have made toward their degrees by their 23rd birthday.

Courtney also called for more support programs where foster youth live, whether that's in group homes or facilities.

SUPPORT IN EAST LOS ANGELES COUNTY

Mt. San Antonio College, in east Los Angeles County, offers more comprehensive support than other campuses. It opened a new building this year to house its foster care program. Besides counseling offices and a computer lab, the building's main area is designed with couches and large tables so that foster youth can talk informally with each other and share life experiences.

"Something that is very key about this population is that the one thing that unites them is the one thing that they want to run away from, and that's their history in foster care," said Jeze Lopez, the school's foster services coordinator.

Each of the state's 114 community colleges is required to have a position like Lopez's.

This program reaches about half of the 400 students on campus who are or were in the foster care system. Lopez said some foster youth don't take advantage of the support because they had negative experiences with foster care and see the program as an extension of that system.

Some foster youth have found adults in the college support programs that filled the void created by being separated from family.

"Basically, what we have at the program is that we're built as a family now, everyone is so welcoming and inviting," said 21-year-old, Mt. SAC student Daija Lopez. She said she entered foster care at age 7 and attended 20 elementary schools and five high schools.

Lopez said she's found support from other foster youth enrolled in the support program after talking to them about their experiences.

Some of these conversations happen on the large chairs and tables in the program's common areas. That's where business major Daniel Arellano had a deep conversation with another student who used to be in foster care.

"We were taken around the same age, she was 11, and I was nine," he said. "We kind of both know what it feels like to be without your mother at such a young age, and how it is to live with other people you don't even know."

Part of the program includes two meetings each semester with staff counselors.

"[The counselor] was so open to helping and making sure that I have access to everything and making sure that I've taken advantage of all the different places that can help me on campus," said second-year student Destiney Rodriguez.

In the session, Rodriguez told the counselor that she'd struggled in several classes last semester because she was working about 30 hours a week, and she'd switched foster families. On top of that, she's facing a major life change right around the time she'll be taking finals in the spring semester: she's moving.

Her counselor offered her advice on how to make sure she got all her coursework done before her move.