Kurt Holden enrolled at Wright State University just to have a place to live after he aged out of the foster care system.
The statistics were against him — more than one in five emancipated foster care youth will become homeless after 18, half will be unemployed at age 24 and fewer than 3 percent will earn a college degree by 25, according to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.
Today, Holden has an associate degree from Sinclair Community College, a bachelor’s degree from Wright State and he is pursuing a master’s degree. He also serves as a role model for other former foster youth trying to make their way through college.
“I wanted to really show them that this is possible,” the 27-year-old Holden said. “I’m an image, someone that they can maybe look up to — to go on and achieve what they thought maybe was impossible because the statistics say it nearly is.”
Local colleges and universities are doing more to support students who have aged out of the foster care system — a population they say is the most at-risk of being homeless, dropping out and needing public assistance for much of their lives.
Every year, more than 1,000 young people in Ohio and 26,000 nationwide age out without anyone to turn to for support, anywhere to live or anyway to make a living.
A new study says the cost of doing nothing to support those young adults is $300,000 on average over their lifetimes in public assistance, incarceration and lost wages — adding up to $7.8 billion spent by communities and taxpayers, according to the group Success Beyond 18.
Holden works as a Wright State University police officer and patrols the campus with his bomb dog, Galli. He volunteers with Wright State’s Independent Scholars Network, which was established four years ago to support and guide former foster care youth.
Before the network was created, foster care students lacked a guiding hand to make the university experience less intimidating. Wright State officials heard from one student about his move-in day experience. He was dropped off at the Student Union in a white van with just two Meijer plastic bags containing his personal possessions and had no one to help him navigate what to do next, said Simone Polk, assistant vice president for student services at WSU.
Polk said they agreed: “We don’t want that to happen again.”
Now, the university welcomes foster students on move-in day with a special dinner and welcome baskets containing items parents might typically buy. They attend a bootcamp, college writing workshops, get study coaches and more. The university also awards two competitive $500 scholarships each year. There are now nearly 50 former foster students on campus.
Students agree to participate in at least 70 percent of the activities offered and volunteer at the campus food pantry — which is a strong accountability factor, Holden said.
“When I was in foster care, there’s no accountability. It’s just you, by yourself. So we want to build all that accountability around the network so they feel they have a sense of responsibility to achieve success,” he said. “We give them every opportunity to be successful and all we ask them to do is show up.”
Students now get help through Ohio Reach, which provides an online resource where students can find contact information for a liaison on campus who can connect them with resources they need.
That can help students who might be embarrassed to ask for help on issues such as not having a place to stay during winter break, said Chris Klefeker, who was formerly the foster care liaison at Miami University Hamilton.
“Having someone that can just make a phone call for you… part of that is not having to tell your story over and over. So you don’t go over to financial aid and stand in line and say, ‘I need extra money for books because I was in foster care’… And then to go over to records and have to say it again,” she said. “It becomes a really demoralizing experience.”
Those liaisons can help the students overcome barriers, which can start with the fee to even apply for college, which might be $50.
Miami has a question on its application form where former foster youth can identify themselves to be contacted for help. There are 19 former foster care youth on the Hamilton campus now.
“Our ultimate goal is that people will choose to come to college and will be retained here, and graduate and be successful,” she said.
But there is a disconnect, she said: Over 70 percent of foster youth say in high school they want to go to college, and yet about 2 percent graduate.
“That’s troubling,” Polk said. “Because we know that the American dream is going to be more difficult to achieve in the years coming. And that opportunities and access to employment to earn a living wage above the minimum wage is going to require a bachelor’s degree.”
‘I can actually be somebody’
Mariah Maxwell said she never thought about going to college when she was in foster care. She entered the system when she was 10 years old, lived in 11 different homes and aged out after high school.
“I was going to keep working at Kroger, the job that I had,” she said. But that changed when she was paired with a mentor through the Higher Education Mentor Initiative. She showed Maxwell how different college was than high school by allowing her to sit in on class at the University of Cincinnati.
In April, Maxwell was the first HEMI participate to graduate from the University of Cincinnati. She earned two degrees is psychology and criminal justice. And she is now pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice there and has a son of her own, 18-month-old Mosiah.
“Without this program I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said. “It made me realize I can actually be somebody and I didn’t have to be a statistic.”
HEMI was created in Hamilton County four years ago. Mentors in the program can help students visit college campuses, fill out forms to apply for financial aid and find scholarships, said program coordinator Annie Schellinger.
Changing the stigma
Holden said he was too young to remember when he entered foster care. He lived in at least six homes and changed schools multiple times.
“The foster care system was never set up to be a permanent system,” he said. “It was a set up for a temporary placement to fix whatever issues they had and then return that placement. But it’s turned into more of a permanent lifestyle.”
Policies vary between states about how long youth can receive support, and some provide free tuition for public schools to former foster youth. Ohio does not.
After a year at Wright State, Holden said he saved enough money to go to Sinclair and have an apartment.
“I was the first in my family to achieve a degree,” he said.
Holden said he wanted to do the opposite of his drug-addicted father and mother and “be something someday.” He also wanted to break the cycle for his wife and nearly two-year-old son.
“I found my motivation through all that brokenness,” he said, adding that he was also motivated by his three brothers, who were also in foster care.
Ultimately he wants to change the stigma that is sometimes attached to foster youth.
“We have just as much potential (as other students),” he said. “We may have some emotional scars from our past, but we can use that as our driving force.”