The vast majority of kids in foster care want to attend college. But research shows that foster youth are much less likely to go to college than other high school graduates. One review of multiple studies estimated that approximately 20 percent of foster youth who graduate from high school attend college, compared with 60 percent of high school graduates overall.
And foster youth who make it to college are much more likely to drop out before earning a degree, even compared with first-generation college students.
Many foster kids have moved from high school to high school, aren't academically prepared for the rigors of college, and have to play catch-up with remedial classes, extending their time in school. Many of them don't know about federal financial aid they might qualify for, and struggle to find stable housing.
Money helps, youth advocates say. But foster youth also need something intangible: the emotional support of a caring adult, said Steve Walsh, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at California State University at Bakersfield, an intensive support program for foster youth and low-income, first generation college students.
"We assume if you throw a little money at the problem that takes care of it," Walsh said. "But what universities and colleges are finding out is you need more than that."
Even students who come from families of limited means have advantages that foster kids don't, Walsh said. For example, he said, a student who can't drive his car to class because his tires are shot may be able to get a ride from his parents, even if they can't afford to give him $300 to buy new tires. Foster youth don't have that kind of support.
There's no federal requirement to provide foster youth with help in college, which leaves it up to the states. California, where a quarter of foster youth are 16 and over, has taken the most aggressive approach. Since 2015, the state has offered $15 million in community college assistance for current and former foster youth aged 16 to 26.
In each of the past three years, California has enacted legislation to tackle some aspect of the problem, such as providing grants for books and supplies, mental health services or child care assistance. (Foster youth are more likely to become teen parents.)
The most recent measure requires every county child welfare agency to assign somebody to assist foster youth with applications for college and vocational school and for financial aid. It also doubles the number of community college districts with on-campus support programs from 10 to 20, and streamlines the financial aid verification process for foster youth.
Help with the verification process would have made a big difference to Barries, who couldn't find the documentation she needed to verify that she was, indeed, in foster care.