Career Support for Former Foster Care Students in Higher Education

By Christine Norton, Dawn Flores, and Naomi Valdez

Foster care agencies report that only five percent of foster youth go to college and fewer than 2% of foster youth graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 27% of the general population (Newberger, 2010). Many of these students do not have the social and emotional support they need to succeed in college. Having aged out of the foster care system, they may be confused, nervous about course work and grades, and struggling financially. It is important to support former foster care students through the ups and downs of college life in order to promote retention, graduation and ultimately, financial independence.

Career Support: A Critical Component of Student Retention

Some of the hardest decisions former foster youth will have to make in college will be
choosing a major and setting career goals based on their interests, abilities, and life experiences. This is true for all college students, many of whom end up undecided or changing their mind about their major repeatedly (Fidduccia, 2003). According to Fidduccia (2003), “Retention is a factor that seems to be greatly related to career indecision” (p. 5). When students are ambivalent or confused about academic and career goals, they are at risk of dropping-out (Fidduccia, 2003). However, it is also true that if students select a major prematurely, without much thought or for the wrong reasons, they, too, are at risk of leaving college (Cuseo, 2005). Career counseling can help students transition from an educational setting to a vocational or career setting and potentially avoid these negative outcomes.

Fortunately, our experience working with foster care alumni has shown that when students do have clarity about their major and future career aspirations, it enhances their degree of college persistence. Through a survey of former foster care students, we learned that the top two majors selected are criminal justice and social work. Students report that they want to make a difference in these systems by using their past experiences to help others. This emotional connection to their academic and career pursuits is a strong motivator for persistence in college.

Career Support: What do Former Foster Care Students Really Need?

Buys, et al. (2011) believe that career counseling with former foster care students should focus on providing career opportunities, communication skills and relationship building. Hudson’s (2013) research shares this relational focus. According to Hudson (2013), former foster youth need short-term career mentors who can help give them insight into the profession in which they are interested and guidance regarding which college courses are needed for the chosen profession. Along with mentorship, career support must include financial literacy skills. According to Batsche, et al. (2014), financial independence during college proves difficult for most former foster care students, and even after graduation, some former foster care students do not have a solid plan for financial self-sufficiency. Career support, coupled with financial literacy skills may result in an improved socio-economic status and standard of living for former foster care students.

FACES of Texas State University

The Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success (FACES) initiative at Texas State uses a relational model of targeted career support. We have a representative from Career Services who is a consistent point of contact for our students and helps with everything from immediate employment concerns, such as finding a job on campus, to long-term career planning and goal setting. Most importantly, this staff person is building relationships with students in order to more fully support and guide them, which is the most important aspect of career counseling with this population. Foster care agency workers are encouraged to find or develop such programs for the benefit of those in or graduating from foster care.


Batsche, C., Hart, S., Ort, R., Armstrong, M., Strozier, A., & Hummer, V. (2014). Post-secondary transitions of youth emancipated from foster care. Child & Family Social Work, 19(2), 174-184.

Buys, N., Tilbury, C., Creed, P., & Crawford, M. (2011). Working with youth in-care: implications for vocational rehabilitation practice. Disability And Rehabilitation, 33(13-14), 1125-1135.

Cuseo, J. (2005). “Decided,” “undecided,” and “in transition”: Implications for academic advisement, career counseling & student retention. In R.S. Feldman (Ed.). Improving the first year of college: Research and practice. (pp.27-48). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Feduccia, M. D. (2003). Career counseling for college students: The influence of a computer assisted career decision-making program on the stability of college major selection at a research-extensive university (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southwestern Louisiana).

Hudson, A. L. (2013). Career mentoring needs of youths in foster care: Voices for change. Journal Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 26(2), 131-137.

Dr. Christine Lynn Norton, LCSW, is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Texas State University. She is the Chair of the Foster Care Advisory Council and is the Faculty Advisor for FACES of Texas State (Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success). cn19@txstate.edu

Dawn Flores is an MSW candidate at Texas State University. She is completing her Foundation Field Practicum as an Advocate with the FACES Initiative. In this role, Dawn provides one-one-one and group support to former foster care students. drflores@txstate.edu

Naomi Valdez, MEd, is Student Development Specialist in the Office of Retention Management and Planning at Texas State University, and coordinates retention efforts for former foster care students. naomivldz@txstate.edu


Printer-Friendly Version


Curt Schafer   on Monday 02/15/2016 at 03:58 PM

I am so happy to see the continued success of the FACES initiative at Texas State. Great work, Christine, Naomi and Dawn!!!

Diane McClinton   on Tuesday 02/14/2017 at 10:07 AM

I am currently a Career Advisor for the State of NC and taking courses to receive my credentials as a CDF. This was very informative when targeting and preparing Foster Care Students for the workforce. They do have special needs. Thank you

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.