As we planned to host a New Year’s Day brunch, my husband, daughter and I bought a selection of muffins and other baked goods from The Monkey & The Elephant at 2831 West Girard Avenue. We were happy to purchase more than we actually needed, not only because everything was delicious, but because of M & E’s special purpose: “Through a year-long employment training program, M & E supports young adults aging out of foster care.”
As the Citizen has chronicled, Lisa Miccolis launched the café in 2014 along with a training program that teaches job skills, budgeting, conflict management, apartment hunting—the “soft and hard skills,” as Miccolis has put it, that are needed to thrive as adults on their own.
As the M & E brochure points out, in the United States 400,000 youth are in foster care, with 30,000 aging out yearly. According to the Mentor Network, there are more than 16,800 children in foster care in Pennsylvania; 95 percent will leave the system with no source of income and under 3 percent will earn a college degree.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Philadelphia-area colleges and universities should take an example from Eastern Michigan University (EMU), which runs MAGIC (Mentorship, Access and Guidance in College), a program for students in foster care, under the umbrella of Fostering Success Michigan (FSM). MAGIC provides campus-based support services for students who are alumni of foster care. The goal is to increase graduation rates for this group by special counseling designed to remove barriers and, more generally, to assist participants in becoming independent adults. Isn’t that what college should be about for everyone?
The situation described on the EMU website reflects a national problem. Seventy percent of foster kids plan on going to college, but very few make it. The most common barriers are homelessness when they age out of the system at 18; lack of financial support, compounded by lack of information about financial aid and scholarships; stress and trauma. Individual stories are heartbreaking. The loss of human capital is a major societal issue.
MAGIC directly addresses those problems, but what the EMU program does not yet do sufficiently is to recruit and encourage elementary, middle school and high school youth to stop seeing foster care as a barrier to higher education. If Philadelphia-area colleges and universities steal this idea, we can repay the debt with interest by designing structured and consistent outreach programs.
In August 2019, EMU won a three-year grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to develop and implement a mandatory training curriculum for foster and adoptive parents. This education of foster families will increase opportunities to provide information about preparing their kids for college. They will learn about financial aid, tutoring and special opportunities available to foster youth
If we open the doors of higher education, how many formerly excluded students might discover new protections from pandemics, write inspirational novels and become involved citizens?
In October 2021, MAGIC joined forces with Educate Tomorrow, a national nonprofit based in Miami, Florida, which supports educational pathways, networking and training for foster children aspiring to higher education. Through this connection EMU will reach younger students before they age out of foster care.
Educate Tomorrow has had noteworthy success in Florida, with coaches addressing “essential needs” (housing, legal support, financial literacy, emergency financial assistance, mental health support); “academic” (after-school and summer programs; financial aid information, college tours, building social capital); “growth planning” (career advising, internships, mentoring); “personal development” (defining life’s purpose, contributing to the community, volunteer service). Because EMU’s MAGIC had accomplished so much on its own, it was eligible for support from Educate Tomorrow.
It’s time for Philadelphia-area universities and colleges to partner with the Commonwealth, city and social service agencies to provide similar opportunities in the Philadelphia region. Commitment to educating foster youth will undoubtedly lead to opportunities for partnership, funding and sponsorship, as EMU has found.
As universities and colleges commit to educating a diverse population beyond the decreasing number of traditional, middle-class students, it’s essential to reach out to youth in foster care. We should no longer leave these young people to their own devices, while we celebrate the very few who find their way to college without the help they deserve.
Here’s what colleges and universities could do:
- Make outreach to foster youth part of the job description for an appropriate administrator.
- Contact Eastern Michigan University and Florida’s Educate Tomorrow for guidance.
- Partner with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, the Pennsylvania Mentor Network and other agencies focused on foster care to develop pathways to higher education.
- Sponsor K-12 programming so that all kids, whether in traditional or foster care, see themselves as 100 percent college-bound. (Distribute t-shirts with that phrase!)
- Seek public and private funding for a comprehensive program of foster parent education; counseling and encouraging foster youth, K-12; funding college costs including campus housing for foster youth accepted at colleges and universities. If you look at the grant support achieved in Michigan and Florida, you will see that this objective is do-able.
For readers who donate funds to colleges and universities, make serving foster youth a priority. Invite your favorite campus’s development officer for coffee and goodies at The Monkey & The Elephant and offer support for students who might be lost without it.
Universities and colleges must finally expand their educational mission. Four hundred thousand youth in foster care! If we open the doors of higher education, how many formerly excluded students might discover new protections from pandemics, write inspirational novels and become involved citizens?
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Header photo by Charles DeLoye / Unsplash