- The purpose of this study was to examine the experiences of foster alumni in community and technical colleges, with a focus on Washington State, using a qualitative research approach. Foster alumni may be considered a sub-set of first generation students, yet they have needs that extend beyond those of other first-generation students (e.g., housing). Examination of this issue is timely. Funding designated for foster alumni in higher education has increased in recent years, leading to a variety of support structures and levels of service at the colleges. Yet in the current budget climate, with state support diminishing, the two-year colleges face increasing challenges in providing support not only for foster alumni but for all students. Foster alumni moving into adulthood and through the state colleges represent the quintessential case of in loco parentis, yet their emerging status as adults needs to be supported with appropriate services, not forced dependency.
This dissertation consists of three major manuscripts: a summary of the literature and two research reports, one focused on overall findings and the second focused on moving from the findings to considerations for practice. All three manuscripts utilized the critical social science or social justice perspective. The research manuscripts report the findings of a qualitative study using a collective case study design. Two colleges that serve foster alumni were identified and both staff and foster alumni students at the sites were interviewed, for a total of 10 students and 4 staff members. Participant selection utilized both purposive and convenience sampling methods. The study focused on three themes relevant to college participation which were identified based upon the review of the literature: Academic preparedness, psycho-social factors, and meeting basic needs. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim; staff interviews served as both triangulation of the student data as well as a source of additional information on college services to foster alumni. Responses were analyzed for direct responses to interview questions as well as for emerging themes. In addition, case records (e.g., transcripts) were reviewed as an additional method of data triangulation.
Findings of the study were reported through individual case summaries in manuscript two as well as cross-case analysis in both manuscripts. While the participants in this study had high rates of high school completion and many had shown signs of "early promise" for academic achievement, all needed pre-college level course remediation in at least one area. A majority of participants indicated having felt depressed, yet only one participant had a diagnosis of depression; most seemed to consider some level of depression to be a natural outcome in their situation. Indications of resilience and internal locus of control were evident. Many continued to struggle to meet basic needs while in college, and eight of the ten student participants reported having experienced periods of homelessness since leaving foster care.
Based upon the findings of this study, foster alumni share certain characteristics with other first-generation students, yet their needs in particular areas necessitate additional on-campus services and/or stronger connections with community partners. Considerations for enhancing support services in the community and technical colleges in seven different areas are given, including designating staff contacts, building community partnerships to support housing, arranging for priority registration and financial aid processing to avoid enrollment gaps, and providing optional (not mandatory) mentoring relationships.