Finishing high school and attaining a college degree have become increasingly important to finding stable employment and earning a living wage. By age 19, most youth in the US have earned a high school credential and many have entered college. However, the educational attainment of young people who were in foster care as adolescents lags behind their peers (Gillum, Lindsay, Murray, & Wells, 2016). In one large study involving foster youths in three Midwestern states, about four in ten participants had not earned a high school credential by age 19, compared to about one in ten young people across the nation (Courtney et al., 2005). The gap in college entry was even larger; just 24 percent of foster youth had entered college, compared to 57 percent of their peers (Courtney et al., 2005). These gaps have consequences for the employment prospects and economic well-being that foster youths experience later in adulthood (Okpych & Courtney, 2014; Salazar, 2013).

Disparities in educational attainment between foster youth and their peers have been well documented, but less research has examined factors that influence educational outcomes. Existing studies have found that several factors negatively impact high school completion and college outcomes, including high school mobility, physical or learning disabilities, substance use problems, early parenthood, placement in a congregate care setting (vs. foster care home), and a history of grade repetition (Clemens, Lalonde, & Sheesley, 2016; Courtney & Hook, 2016; Villegas, Rosenthal, O’Brien, & Pecora, 2014). Conversely, higher reading proficiency, higher educational aspirations, early work experience, and receiving a high amount of preparation before exiting care have been found to positively impact these outcomes (Courtney & Hook, 2016; Villegas et al., 2014). Additionally, remaining in care past one’s 18th birthday was found to increase the chances of completing high school and finishing a year of college, even after rigorous accounting for alternative explanations (Courtney & Hook, 2016). Overall, existing studies suggest that several risk factors, such as academic difficulties and behavioral health problems, impede educational attainment for foster youth, while supportive contexts and skill development opportunities promote such attainment.

This Memo builds on past studies by examining factors that influence the likelihood of young people in foster care finishing high school and entering college. California is a state that has been at the forefront of promoting educational attainment for young people in foster care. We examine a wide range of predictors such as youths’ demographic characteristics, aspects of their academic performance and background, characteristics of their maltreatment and foster care histories, and other risk and promotive factors.