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Helping Foster Youths Find a Better Future

Judy Havlicek

Associate Professor

teen students studying together

The School of Social Work is taking part in a study designed to support youths aging out of foster care and educate them about their postsecondary education options.

In a study she completed in 2021, Judy Havlicek found that on average only 33% of young people who aged out of foster care in Illinois enrolled in postsecondary education. Eighty-eight percent of those who did enroll did so first in a community college. Of those who enrolled in either a two- or four-year college, only 8% graduated with a four-year degree within six years.

She wanted to support the Illinois child welfare system in doing something about that.

So, Havlicek, associate professor in the School of Social Work, worked with the Illinois Department of Child & Family Services to become a pilot site for Better Futures, an intervention developed about a decade ago at Portland State University to support youths aging out of foster care to learn about postsecondary education options and further explore their personal interests through peer coaching sessions.

Funded by the Institute of Educations Sciences (IES), a Better Futures five-year study is being conducted by principal investigator Amy Salazar of Washington State University and co-PI Jennifer Blakeslee of Portland State University. Blakeslee and her team came to the UIUC campus in July for three days to train six social work students in an evidence-supported intervention. The students will act as coaches for the foster youths connected to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign portion of the study, which is testing the effectiveness of the program compared with services as usual.

Providing Support

“We want to educate foster youth about postsecondary education options,” Havlicek says. “Our coaches will support youths to identify their goals. The program is designed to support goal attainment, whatever these might be. From some of the research I’ve seen, this intervention does increase levels of self-determination and motivation for college, and the hope is it also increases rates of enrollment and graduation.”

The 10-month program was launched on campus in late July, Havlicek says, followed by bimonthly coaching sessions and quarterly workshops. Similar interventions in the study are being held in Texas, Oregon, and California.

“We recruited 18 young people to come to campus to stay for two nights and three days,” she says. “We gave them a campus tour and facilitated panels of students to talk about their experiences. We also had a panel on careers, talking about different career pathways, and a panel on financial aid. We also visited Parkland Community College, and the youths got a chance to meet their coaches.”

Filling a Gap in Programming

Coaches are meeting twice a month in 90-minute, one-on-one sessions with the youths. During the meetings, the coaches are helping youths establish specific steps and timelines as they work toward their goals. The youths, who are from Champaign County and surrounding counties, are also attending skill-building workshops led by “near-peer” college students with lived experience in foster care. The topics are focused on relevant postsecondary topics.

Better Futures is designed to fill a gap in programming that is specific to the needs of foster youths—specifically, the longer-term, relation-based supports typically provided by parents. If the intervention is found to be effective, it will be one of the few evidence-based practices for improving postsecondary outcomes for youths with foster care experience.

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