Western Michigan University program ‘a model’ for helping foster students graduate

Ten years after launching its Seita Scholars Program, Western Michigan University has emerged as a leader among U.S. institutions working to address the numerous hurdles that complicate foster youth’s path to a college degree. The Hechinger Report and HuffPost recently featured Seita’s story as part of a series called “Twice abandoned: How schools and child-welfare systems fail kids in foster care.”

Lacking mentors and support systems, foster students often struggle to navigate and complete higher education. Only 50 percent of young people from the foster system graduate high school by age 18, and only 2 to 9 percent obtain bachelor’s degrees.

Seita Scholars Program takes aim at key obstacles

While nonprofits and federal government programs offer some resources for foster youth in higher education, Western Michigan—a suburban public university serving more than 18,000 undergraduates—has focused on working with state authorities to close the gap. Launched in 2008, the Seita Scholars program addresses key obstacles that lead foster students to drop out, such as “insufficient preparation for college-level work, poor money management, and mental health struggles.”

Related: Foster children at great risk of college dropout, study finds >

Currently serving around 125 students per year, the Seita program seeks to create a stable environment and a community for its select group of scholars, many of whom were insufficiently supported and frequently moved during their youth. Students who have spent time in foster care apply to the program after receiving admission to the university, and the program kicks off with a summer session designed to create community and ease students’ transition to college. Seita scholars also must live on campus. In addition, the program provides academic coaching, emotional counseling, $13,400 per year in scholarship money, and financial planning assistance.

The program pairs each Seita scholar with a campus coach, a case worker-type role, in which the coach helps scholars with everything from completing homework to securing transportation, attending therapy sessions, and mastering other life skills. “If I’m in struggling in school, that’s the first person I go to,” said Seita Scholar Ali Tinai.

The program’s graduation rates ranges from 24 to 44 percent for cohorts that started between 2008 and 2013—yields that are lower than Western Michigan’s 54 percent overall graduation rate but significantly greater than the national average for foster care youth, The Hechinger Report notes.

Emphasizing how important it is that “youth in the child welfare system are positioned to have the same choices that youth outside the system” have, Jennifer Pokempner, the director of child welfare policy at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center says Western Michigan’s program is “seen as a model” for increasing foster youth’s college success.

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