Foster Care History,Profiles of Adolescence,and Educational Attainment


High school completion and post-secondary enrollment are taken for granted by most K-12 students and
their parents in the United States (Lippman et al. 2008; Pew Research Center 2011), but research points to
significant educational disadvantages among youth with foster care experience (Johnson 2019; Kirk et al.
2011; Reilly 2003; Watt, Norton, and Jones 2013). Youth in foster care tend to have higher rates of dropout
and lower rates of GED attainment (Blome 1997) or high school graduation (Reilly 2003). Only about 10%
of youth with a history of foster care enroll in a four-year college, and a smaller percentage graduate (Geiger and Beltran 2017). While in college, youth with foster care experience do not perform as well in their first semester as other first-year students (Unrau, Font, and Rawls 2012), and time to graduation and overall graduation rates are worse for youth with foster care experience than for their first-generation, low-income peers (Day, Dworsky, and Feng 2013; Day et al. 2011). However, when statistically matched to peers on individual, familial and environmental characteristics, youth with foster care experience may not be significantly less likely to earn a high school diploma or attend college (Berzin 2008). Moreover, less is known about whether youth with foster care experience may capitalize on high educational aspirations and optimism about their future (Merdinger et al. 2005; Reilly 2003; Unrau, Font, and Rawls 2012) to catch up to their peers over time.

Educational attainment is a key component of the increasingly diverse transition to adulthood that is largely shaped by family support and adolescent experiences prior to high school completion (Setterson, Ottusch, and Schneider 2015). Numerous studies document the exposure of youth with foster care experience to adolescent risk factors for poor adult outcomes (e.g., weak family connections, child abuse, exposure to violence), some of which tend to be significantly less common in the general population (Lee and Berrick 2014; Turney and Wildeman 2017; Unrau, Font, and Rawls 2012). At the same time, youth with foster care experience may benefit from adolescent protective factors that decrease the chances of poor outcomes or offset the effects of risk factors, such as formal mentors and positive expectations for the future (Hokanson et al. 2020; Thompson, Greeson, and Brunsink 2016), along with programmatic efforts designed to help offset the adverse effects of these youths’ risk exposure. Therefore, questions remain about the effect of foster care on the post-secondary educational attainment of young Americans when viewed within the context of risk and protective factors that strongly influence the transition to adulthood and educational outcomes in particular.

In this study, we use nationally representative data to compare the educational attainment of young adults who have foster care experience to those who do not. We use a dataset with a longitudinal structure that allows us to follow respondents through the transition to adulthood and a sufficient sample of those with foster care experience to support cluster analysis and multinomial logistic regression models predicting an outcome with more than two possible categories. While other researchers have used earlier waves of the same dataset to study other outcomes of youth with foster care experience (e.g., Singer and Berzin 2015 uses Wave III data to study adult identity), Wave IV of the Add Health allows us to capture educational outcomes over an extended period, up until the respondents are 24 to 32 years old. This is important because of the “stuttered” experience with post-secondary education that has become increasingly common in the United States (Setterson, Ottusch, and Schneider 2015). Furthermore, youth with foster care experience may experience particularly bumpy trajectories as they are likely to be on their own, which could make post-secondary enrollment and persistence more challenging. Also, much research on foster care and education focuses on children (e.g., Berger et al. 2015), adolescents (e.g., Sullivan, Jones, and Mathieson 2010), or individuals within the first few years of adulthood (e.g., Berzin 2008; Samuels and Price 2008; Singer and Berzin 2015), with less research attention to what happens throughout early adulthood.

Literature Review

Foster Care as an Early Life Experience

Foster care is experienced by approximately 6% of children in the United States (Wildeman and Emanuel
2014). This experience is a unique type of family disruption that reflects extreme disadvantage because
negative life circumstances lead up to foster care placement, and foster care experience is associated with
a wide range of downstream consequences. Youth with foster care experience are a diverse population
with a variety of experiences, such as number and types of placements, duration of placements, and age at entry into care (Dworsky 2018). Youth in foster care may have lived in group homes, been victims of child maltreatment, and experienced limited and/or inconsistent adult support (Annie E. Casey Foundation 2015; Bruskas 2008; Lee and Berrick 2015). Youth with foster care experience also have high rates of behavioral and emotional disorders due to abuse, neglect, and disruptive multiple placement changes (Johnson 2019). Turney and Wildeman (2017) find that youth with foster care experience are more likely than their peers to have a range of adverse childhood experiences, such as exposure to violence; the finding holds even when they examine subgroups of youth, such as the most socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Emerging Adulthood and Educational Attainment

Sustained scholarly attention highlights the phenomenon of “emerging adulthood” in U.S. society, where individuals aged 18-25 have some self-sufficiency but do not yet see themselves as full adults (Arnett 2000). This life course stage when individuals gradually progress toward adult milestones is arguably a privileged

status (Morton 2017). While this period of emerging adulthood may be the new normal for many young Americans, young people with foster care experience are more likely to identify themselves as fully adult and less likely to have experienced emerging adulthood (Singer and Berzin 2015). They may be facing issues such as poverty, homelessness, and early parenthood (Font, Cancian, and Berger 2019; Hedenstrom 2021), which are referred to as “precocious transitions” (Wickrama, Wickrama, and Baltimore 2010). Rather than focusing on identity formation, as is typical in emerging adulthood, youth with foster care experience may be more concerned with employment and financial stability (Bowen et al. 2021).

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