There are many reasons why care leavers might struggle to pursue higher education. Here’s how your university can help make it a reality.
As defined by The Care Leavers’ Association, a care leaver is any adult who has spent time in foster or residential care as a child (before the age of 18).
Care leavers face several challenges and obstacles in their journey towards higher education that other students are less likely to encounter.
Some of these challenges include a lack of positive role models, unstable finances, low grades, poor mental health, and low levels of confidence.
In fact, two thirds of children enter care as a result of abuse and neglect.
Once in care, many may experience instability when foster placements break down, which may cause significant disruptions to their education and negative ripple effects to their mental health.
As summarized by Gov.uk: “Care leavers are some of the most vulnerable young people in society and often have to make the transition from care to independence without the support from parents and wider support networks that other young people rely on.”
without the guidance that so many other young people receive, care leavers are less likely to apply for higher education or to see it as an attainable option for them.
As a result, the number of care leavers who attend university is much lower than those who come from a more traditional family environment.
In Australia for example, there are around 50,000 people in state care, and according to recent trends only 2.8% of these will make it to university.
In order to increase the number of care leavers attending university and to ensure their continuing success during and after their studies, institutions must work hard to remove the obstacles they can face along the way.
In 2018, the UK Government launched the Care Leaver Covenant which acts as a “commitment from public, private, and voluntary sector organizations to support people leaving care.”
As part of this, higher education institutions are also expected to support and encourage care leavers.
Below are just a few of the ways your institution can be proactive in attracting these students towards higher education and guiding them along the journey.
Attracting care leavers to higher education
The first step in increasing the number of care leavers in higher education is to help these students visualize university as an attainable and attractive goal.
Outreach work like connecting with local authorities and schools will help to expose care leavers to higher education and present it as an exciting option.
Open days and tours that are targeted at foster carers and the young people they look after could also help attract care leavers.
At these events, current university students and staff can demonstrate the benefits of higher education and address any concerns care leavers may raise.
As explained by Neil Harrison, Deputy Director of the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford, the ultimate goal of these events is to “encourage students to dream big, and counsel them on their options.”
For example, many care leavers may assume that the entry requirements for their desired university are fixed, which can be one of the main barriers if their grades are not high enough.
But this isn’t always the case, and it’s a good idea to talk care leavers through the various options they may have.
While it’s understandable that some courses, such as medicine, require specific grades, many institutions will consider the difficulties that care leavers have faced and adjust entry requirements where possible.
As the advice website Propel explains to care leavers: “There might be some flexibility, or they might be able to suggest a course that is similar but has different entry requirements.”
To inspire care leavers to pursue higher education, institutions must be proactive in their communication efforts, talking care leavers through their options and guiding them throughout the application process.
Supporting care leavers during the experience
It’s all very well encouraging a care leaver to attend university, but these students must also receive the support required to thrive there.
Research shows that care leavers who finish their degree are just as likely to achieve a first or upper second class as their peers.
This demonstrates that with the right support, care leavers can excel in higher education and set themselves up for a better future.
However, if the obstacles so often faced by care leavers aren’t addressed from the outset, they might struggle to flourish at university.
An obvious issue is that of funding the university experience.
Writing for The Guardian, Anastasia Glushko, a care leaver who attended the Australian National University and the University of Oxford, explains the impact unstable finances can have on the idea of attending university.
She says: “Children in care are often pressured to opt for ‘easier’ and shorter occupational training in order to become economically independent as soon as possible, rather than pursuing higher education qualifications.”
However, with the right financial support, higher education can be a completely feasible option for care leavers.
Universities must acknowledge that many care leavers will not have grown up in an environment that encourages financial stability and address this with significant funding.
The University of Exeter in the UK offers “a full fee waiver for UK undergraduates and PGCE students, and a Care Leavers’ Bursary,” allowing care leavers to study without paying tuition fees.
It’s likely that care leavers will also need financial support when it comes to student accommodation.
Accommodation can have a huge impact on a student’s university experience, which was explored in our previous blog: Why Student Accommodation Should be a Priority for Your University in 2020.
The District of Columbia acknowledges this importance and as a response is committed to covering “the costs of room and board for care leavers enrolled in post-secondary education.”
In addition to funding support, care leavers are likely to require mental health services during their time at university.
Many young people in care are there due to family difficulties that may include violence, neglect, abuse, or illness, and the ripple effects of this past trauma won’t disappear once they’re at university.
Neil Harrison explains that care leavers who attend university will need “a managed transition and improved therapeutic support around mental health issues resulting from childhood trauma.”
Universities have a huge part to play in making higher education a more accessible space for care leavers.
For information on how your institution can improve its social responsibility efforts, please see our white paper: The Rise of Social Responsibility in Higher Education.