Measuring Progress in Postsecondary Education: Lessons Learned from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Foster Youth Strategic Initiative

Research BriefChild WelfareJul 17 2020

Research indicates that postsecondary educational attainment is associated with increased earnings later in life and is a key factor in the achievement of self-sufficiency among youth as they transition to adulthood—including among youth with foster care experience.i Many young people with foster care experience, however, face significant challenges engaging in postsecondary education from enrollment through completion. Several research studies demonstrate that, relative to their peers, youth with foster care experience:

  1. Enroll in college at lower ratesii
  2. Are more likely to be enrolled in school part-time and attend two-year college/vocational schooliii
  3. Complete two- and four-year degrees at lower rates.iv

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted educational pathways for all students, but this is especially so for traditionally underserved students, including youth with foster care experience. Stakeholders have little data to describe the effects of COVID-19 on youth engaged in postsecondary education, although anecdotal evidence points to possibly devastating consequences on youths’ educational attainment.v Policymakers, agency leaders, and funders need better data about youths’ postsecondary educational experiences to understand the effectiveness of policies, programs and funding intended to support youths’ educational attainment and, ultimately, their paths to self-sufficiency. Although research studies have shed light on the educational trajectories of youth with foster care experience, the child welfare field lacks comprehensive information describing youths’ postsecondary experiences and Incomplete data and analysis limits stakeholders’ ability to understand barriers and facilitators to postsecondary success, assess policy and program effectiveness, and develop informed solutions. Stakeholders face challenges identifying youth with foster care experience in key datasets and sharing information across systems. These challenges hamper their efforts to track and measure youth progress and to identify opportunities to engage and support youth.

As part of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Foster Youth Strategic Initiative, Child Trends conducted literature and document reviews, interviews, focus groups, and meetingsvii to explore postsecondary initiatives for youth with foster care experience in New York City (NYC) and Los Angeles County (LA). Although not an exhaustive description, our analysis describes key opportunities and challenges in the collection, analysis, and use of data that describes youths’ postsecondary experiences.


Stakeholders in LA and NYC operate in different contexts and are at different stages in their efforts to improve information about youths’ postsecondary experiences. Yet their efforts point to four common, emerging strategies. These strategies can help policymakers, agency leaders, and funders elsewhere in the nation develop better information about the postsecondary trajectories of youth with foster care experience and, ultimately, make more informed decisions about how to help youth achieve their educational goals:

  1. Coordinate across youth-serving public systems to link data and identify critical gaps in data and information.
  2. Develop methods to identify all youth with foster care experience as they enroll and engage in postsecondary education.
  3. Develop common measures so progress accurately translates across programs and systems.
  4. Incorporate information about employment training and certification in the definition of postsecondary education experience.

Through this brief, we describe the use of each of these strategies in NYC and LA. We discuss stakeholders’ descriptions of lessons learned, including the advances, accomplishments, and ongoing opportunities for improvement in information about the postsecondary experiences of youth with foster care experience. We conclude with implications for stakeholders across the country—including policymakers, agency leaders, and funders—who are working to improve postsecondary outcomes for this important group of youth.



i Individuals who have completed at least some college earn more annually and over their lifetime and are more likely to be employed and working full-time, compared to individuals with a high school diploma (Baum, 2014; Carnavale, Rose, & Cheah, 2011). Former foster youth are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages when they have completed at least some college (Okpych & Courtney, 2014).

ii The Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth (The Midwest Study) found that 30 percent of foster youth had ever enrolled in college by age 21, in comparison to 53 percent of youth in a nationally representative sample (Courtney et al., 2011). Of foster youth surveyed through the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH Study), 29 percent were currently enrolled in school at age 21, compared to 43 percent of youth nationally (Courtney et al., 2018).

iii Courtney et al., 2018

iv The Midwest Study found that 4 percent of foster youth completed a two-year degree by age 26, compared to 10 percent of youth nationally. Four percent of foster youth completed a four-year degree by age 26, compared to 36 percent of youth nationally (includes youth who completed at least one year of graduate school) (Courtney et al., 2011).

v Media coverage highlights the challenges youth with foster care experience face as they navigate high school, postsecondary education, and graduate studies during the pandemic (Chronicle of Social Change, 2020).

vi Depending on the research study design, several limitations may be present, such as samples representing only one geographic area or program, low response rates to surveys, and reliance on self-reported foster care history.

vii Information gathering activities from 2018 to 2019 included in-depth reviews of community and grantee documents and reports; interviews with researchers, advocates, and system administrators (n=72); two focus groups with foster youth (n=20); and three small group meetings with LA and NYC grantees.