Illinois State University’s Center for Adoption Services received a $50,000 grant to better understand the needs of former foster youth as they maneuver through college.

The grant from the Spencer Foundation will support an online “needs and assets” survey of more than 350 former foster youth who attend college in Illinois. The study, led by Director of the Center for Adoption Services Doris Houston and Assistant Professor of Social Work Christopher Gjesfjeld, is a partnership between ISU and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

“This work seeks to lay the groundwork for institutions of higher education to support this under-served population of young adults who have overcome life obstacles including abuse, neglect, and family disruption,” said Houston, who added the study findings and recommendations will be used to guide the development of programs geared toward former foster youth.

“Only 20 percent of qualified students from foster care apply for college, and only 1 to 11 percent of those students make it to graduation,” said Houston.

Doris Houston

Doris Houston of Illinois State University’s School of Social Work

The study, which started in July, asks DCFS-involved students about their experiences with campus resources—everything from financial aid and counseling to extra-curricular activities and housing. “We’re looking at anything that offers them support,” said Houston. “This is a ‘needs and assets assessment’ to understand what will help students not just academically, but also socially and emotionally,” said Houston.

Students who grew up in the DCFS system face unique challenges, noted Houston. “Many students have the drive to make it to college with little or no support system from home, and some are still dealing with challenging family circumstances,” she said, adding the students who grow up in foster care have the survival skills and leadership skills to negotiate a major child welfare system. “They are smart, capable, and exceptionally resilient. We want to understand how their strengths can be nourished on campuses.”

Preliminary results from the survey could be ready as early as the spring of 2016. Houston and Gjesfjeld’s long-term goal is to provide state universities across Illinois with targeted programming ideas for students from the DCFS system. “We’re hoping to create programs on our end that can be a model for other communities,” she said. “Our vision is to have Illinois State seen as a hub for students from foster care, where they get the resources they need.”

The grant, titled “Higher Education Mobility for Former Foster Youth,” is just one of the initiatives of the Spencer Foundation, which investigates ways in which education can be improved around the world.

DCFS Associate Deputy Director Tiffany Gholson serves as the educational consultant to the project, and Illinois State’s Assistant Professor of Communication Aimee Miller-Ott contributed to the development of the survey. Miller-Ott will partner with Houston and Gjesfjeld to analyze the survey results and make recommendations for future programming.