New Conversation: Supporting Foster Youth in Higher Education


Supporting Foster Youth in Higher Education: A Conversation with Sarah Pauter

In February 2024, JPHE Senior Editor Z.W. Taylor spoke with Sarah Pauter, Senior Project Manager with John Burton Advocates for Youth, where she works to improve the college retention and graduation rates of homeless and foster youth through legislative advocacy, policy implementation, technical assistance, and training. After spending 17 years in the child welfare system before ultimately emancipating or “aging out,” Sarah earned a Bachelor’s in Social Work from San Diego State University and a Master’s in Public Policy from Northwestern University. Sarah has dedicated her life and career to improving outcomes for vulnerable children and young adults. Prior to joining John Burton Advocates for Youth, Sarah was the Founder and CEO of Phenomenal Families, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization that serves expectant and parenting youth involved in the foster care and juvenile probation systems. Her special interests include trauma-informed system improvement, youth organizing, and child abuse prevention. The two discuss how institutions of higher education can support foster youth on their path toward higher education and beyond.


Zach Taylor: So, Sarah, tell me a little bit about, you know, kind of your educational background, where'd you go to school? How did you get there? I mean, what's kind of your education story?

Sarah Pauter: Yeah. So, I went straight from high school to a four-year university, and I ended up going to San Diego State University. I think part of the big reason why I went there was because I had grown up in the foster care system. And like many foster youth, I went to an underperforming high school in a low-income area with a lot of minority student populations. My high school district had a compact with San Diego State University that guaranteed admission for all graduating students who met the A through G entrance requirements. I was really hounded early on, starting in middle school, to meet those requirements so that I would be eligible. By the time I was a high school senior, I ended up applying to a lot of schools and got into every single one, which made me realize maybe I should have aimed a little higher. But I didn't know, and I ended up going to San Diego State University because I got a full scholarship. It was the most cost-effective route for me. One of the amazing things that made my transition to higher ed a lot easier was that while I was a high school senior, the Guardian Scholars Program, which is a program specifically for foster youth, contacted me. They had seen my information, wanted me to interview for some additional scholarship money, and wanted to talk to me about the on-campus support services I would be eligible for. So, I already had these key linkages and connections on campus before even enrolling, which made the transition much smoother.

Zach Taylor: For people reading this, the A through G requirements are the minimum curriculum or classes you have to take in high school to be eligible for college admission in the United States. A lot of states have a minimum college readiness curriculum that students have to complete. 

Sarah Pauter: Right. So, these were the courses I took in high school to meet the minimum requirements for admission to a California State University. With the Compact for Success between my high school district and San Diego State, it wasn't just meeting those minimums for guaranteed admission, which was great. There was a lot of focus on getting us ready to go from our underperforming, low-income district to a four-year university. 

Zach Taylor: As foster youth are not a federally protected class, do you know about college access and success rates compared to other populations? Where do foster youth fall in higher ed outcomes?

Sarah Pauter: It's tempting to lump foster youth into the larger minority or low socioeconomic status student umbrella, but the reality is that when you compare foster youths' postsecondary outcomes and graduation rates to other at-risk, low-income, first-generation college populations, they still perform lower. Researchers are trying to untangle what's behind that - is it financial barriers or the impact of childhood trauma impairing their development? There's a lot of hypothesizing but not much clarity on what we still need to fix. In California, 98% of foster youth surveyed said they aspired to a postsecondary education because they felt it would secure their future. But data shows only 55% enroll and by age 23 only about 10% earn a 2- or 4-year degree. Nationally the data is 2-4% completion depending on the study. So, some of our work has focused on expanding financial aid since foster youth don't have family support, especially financial. What they get from extended foster care payments usually isn't enough to cover all education-related expenses. We also need to extend the eligibility duration for aid knowing it can be hard for youth to go straight to college at 18 right after emancipating from care. High school graduation rates for foster youth are much lower than the general population too, so they have some catching up to do academically before they're considered college ready. I certainly did - I got to college and was like, what's a citation? There are definite gaps. 

Zach Taylor: The cultural capital and someone to translate the college-going process makes a huge difference. That's why first-generation students have such disparate outcomes from continuing generation peers in higher ed. As essentially parent-less, foster youth don't even have a generational status, it's almost zero. There may be no one else they've met along the way who has gone to college. It sounds like those connections made a real difference for you.

Sarah Pauter: Right. I remember vividly probably my freshman or sophomore year; I wasn't making ends meet even with my full scholarship. At the time there was no priority housing for foster youth. Housing is a huge issue when you're 18 or 21 emancipating from foster care. I wasn't able to get priority on-campus housing. Now they can stay in campus housing year-round, so they don't have to find summer housing.  But I had to pay rent and for a car. I remember working on a paper sophomore year on the worst laptop ever gifted to me. I lost the whole paper the day before it was due. It was like 2am, I was fried, and I was just going to drop out. That was my moment. I called my Guardian Scholars advisor, she answered, I told her what happened. She said seriously, just email your professor, tell them exactly what happened, tell them you need an extension and I'll vouch for you. She's the reason I got the extension. Without those connections, I would've quietly dropped out. Instead, I had people telling me to call them before disappearing or dropping out. I'm really glad I did talk to someone because I was over it.

Zach Taylor: That cultural capital and having someone to call is so key. That moment could have completely changed your path without that resource. As research on foster youth is fairly limited compared to other marginalized groups in higher ed, what should research focus on related to access and success? 

Sarah Pauter: One area I'm particularly interested in is on-campus mental health services for foster youth. I'm curious if any colleges give priority access to mental healthcare because in California waitlists are long and therapist staffing is limited. I wonder if that's helping outcomes. Retention and graduation are linked to mental health support given higher ed can be re-traumatizing on top of complex trauma. Super curious about that mental health aspect. I'd also be curious to research other foster youth support models and what folks are doing nationally. There's no national outcomes database so states and systems have to study it themselves. A great example was the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study out of Chapin Hall examining extended foster care's impact. The educational outcome metrics tracked would be great for states to replicate.  I think more thoughtfulness around early intervention and college prep would be good too - how can we make dual enrollment an easy reality for foster youth to get a head start on college credits?

Zach Taylor: If you were a college president with no additional budget, what existing resources would you leverage to better serve foster youth?

Sarah Pauter: I'd march down to the financial aid office and pull data on all students who indicated in their FAFSA that they were in foster care or orphaned. I'd give that roster to every pre-existing campus support program and ask them to conduct targeted outreach since those students likely don't know what resources already exist. That's low hanging fruit requiring no additional budget.

Zach Taylor: If you did have additional budget, how would you ideally build out services? 

Sarah Pauter: I'd look at California's NextUp model for community colleges along with four-year campus programs like Guardian Scholars, Renaissance Scholars, and Hope Scholars. They provide wraparound supports - designated campus support staff and space, financial aid liaison familiar with foster youth policies, linkages to basic needs centers. It's a model that could be replicated nationally and has significantly helped graduation rates here.

To learn more about foster youth and Sarah’s work advocating for this population:

Meet Sarah:

Foster youth support programs for college-bound foster youth:

California Community College’s NextUp:

Chaffee Grant for foster youth: