College of Education and Human Development

Grant to address problems foster children face getting into college

Imagine it’s your 18th birthday. Imagine you are surrounded by your family and loved ones. Imagine what might lie ahead. College. A career. A family. Now, imagine it’s your 18th birthday, and you are a foster child.

Imagine that instead of being surrounded by a supportive family, you find that you are surrounded only by uncertainty. Perhaps you choose to seek out your biological parents for support, only to find that they are unable to help you handle the burden of paying for college, let alone provide housing while you attend. Your dreams for attending college slowly sink into despair. Where do you turn?

While most freshmen can expect some degree of difficulty adjusting to university life, foster care youth have many more adjustments to make. The transiency of their situations makes it nearly impossible for them to acquire any substantial information about college. The constant moving from school to school makes it hard to keep track of their records, and the most social workers are able do is to ensure that the children are placed in a stable environment, that they are physically healthy, and that they are attending school. Some foster care youth leave the system as soon as they are legally able to do so and end up homeless or in trouble with the law. Sadly, very little is actually done to help prepare them for college.

Fortunately, Director for the Bank of America Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute (CAPRI), and UTSA Sociology Professor, Harriett Romo and the staff and students at the CAPRI intend to provide assistance to foster-care youth. Romo stated, “While several programs are offered, such as tuition waivers, most of these young adults don’t realize that these services are available to them, and as a result, very few actually attend college, and because of lack of support even fewer graduate from college.”

Romo has received a 3-year, $600,000 grant from The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to assist more foster children to enroll in college. The grant is provided for Hispanic-Serving Universities whose student enrollment rate is more than 25% Hispanic. Romo stated, “UTSA certainly qualifies for this grant, as our student enrollment rate is 44% Hispanic and UTSA is one of the few four-year universities to receive the grant.” The grant is intended to enable UTSA to collaborate with agencies in the community who provide services for foster care children.

One of those agencies involved, the Baptist Child and Family Services provides a Transition Center for foster care youth who “age out” of the fostercare system at 18 years old and suddenly find themselves independent, alone, and with little knowledge about how to access higher education. The grant will provide a new staff member for the Transition Center who will work with foster-care high-school students to encourage them to pursue higher education. CASA, or Children Advocates of San Antonio, will work with the CAPRI to inform foster parents about college resources, as well as enabling foster care advocates to assist in the processes of enrolling students in college. UTSA graduate students in Sociology and Public Policy are helping by setting up a database on housing resources that will provide a website of low-income housing in areas near colleges and universities for prospective students. The tentative name for this database is Home Alone, as the students will be expected to function independently.

The grant has also funded an ACCESS Center in the Bank of America Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute that will offer access to the housing database, and information concerning higher education and financial aid. Romo explained, “Because one has to be enrolled in UTSA to access ASAP, some prospective students find it hard to obtain information regarding student housing and financial aid. This center will help foster care youth bypass these impediments to acquire this type of information more easily, as well as help them acquire funding for housing deposits and immunizations necessary to live in the dorm.” Romo noted, “When we raised this particular issue with the UTSA housing staff, they were at once eager to find ways to accommodate these students.” As a result, housing will be offered to foster care youth during university hiatuses such as summer, and Christmas break.

The HUD grant will also offer leadership and college-prep activities on campus as a comprehensive outreach program to provide an atmosphere that will function as a resource hub for foster children and their guardians. CAPRI staff organized a college access workshop on a Saturday attended by over 80 foster care youth and will help organize a larger program during the summer. Romo stated, “The program will educate admitting staff on the plight foster-care students face to ensure that staff fully understand and are sensitive to the nature of the foster students’ situations. UTSA staff, in all departments, has been extremely responsive to the needs of foster care youth. Furthermore, the grant will provide funding for UTSA Social-Work interns to work at the community-based transition center and conduct qualitative research throughout the duration of the program to ensure that it is providing adequate information to foster care students and their guardians, as well as to consult with program leaders on adjustments that can be made in order to sustain the program beyond the initial three years.” Moreover, Romo added, “we are currently in the process of establishing a student/ mentor program that will be comprised of current foster care students and prospective foster care students as an available community resource.”

Romo noted that this grant was only one of the three HUD grants she has received. The first grant provided funding for a child development center that provides child care for children whose parents attend the Navarro Academy Alternative High School; in addition, the first grant helped initiate a newsletter to provide those parents with pertinent information concerning the center, parenting, and resources in the community, as well as public awareness. The second grant was used to refurbish a closed elementary school in the Edgewood School District into an early childhood center that currently assists over 280 pre-school children. Romo reported that as a result, a group of UTSA students helped develop and implement a Science night, a Math night, a family literacy night, as well as activities to increase awareness about the harmful effects of lead in the home. The grant also paid for one education student to train as a teacher in special education to work on-site with both teachers and students. This student went on to earn a full scholarship at the UT Health Science Center in Special Education for deaf students.

Written into both grants were opportunities for UTSA students to conduct research projects that proved beneficial to the community, which, consequently, led to the inception of the grant to assist foster care children. In fact, Michael Peters, an undergraduate work-study student at the UTSA CAPRI, who had himself been a foster child, suggested the program to help identify and examine the issues that foster care youth face. This provided the foundation for other students to take the project in completely different directions. Beatrice Perez, one of the graduate students working at the CAPRI on the project, has since published two articles in peer review journals that discuss the project’s aspirations and progress; additionally, Perez has maintained that she will carry on her research concerning foster children at the Ph.D. level.

More than anything, Romo hopes that, by raising a consciousness within UTSA, people will continue to reach out to foster care youth in order to better serve their needs.