By Donnie Featherston
My involvement on the inclusion council has taught me that to engage in authentically inclusive practices requires a two-part approach. First, we must find ways in which we can continually improve the programs, activities, policies, activities, and pedagogy so as to be more inclusive of students that are historically underrepresented in higher education. In other words, inclusive efforts help facilitate and open higher education culture in ways that benefit all students. Examples of activities within this part of the approach include facilitating learning between faculty members, exploring creative teaching practices in collaborative ways, and exploring and augmenting institutional policy where appropriate. This would all take place under the “institutional culture” part of the two-part approach. The other part focuses on identifying new student populations that would otherwise go unnoticed, and finding what specific challenges they face and accompanying needs they have. We have to be ready to change and augment our culture certainly, but we must also pursue and be receptive to the groups we still have yet to even recognize. We cannot create an inclusive culture if we do not first recognize the various groups that largely go unnoticed.
It is this second part I often find philosophically interesting, and what I want to focus on in this writing. I feel like we, collectively speaking – that is, all of higher education or at least a predominant segment of it, are failing to recognize an enormous and important population of students. In 2014, the “Fostering Success in Education: National Factsheet on the Educational Outcomes of Children in Foster Care” makes a claim that of the roughly 400,000 foster youth in the U.S. only 2-9% graduate from college. The Factsheet elaborates: “Although studies indicate that youth in foster care have college aspirations numerous studies have found lower college enrollment rates and lower college completion rates among young people who have been in foster care than among other young adults. While one study suggests that former foster youth who do enroll in college are confident about their academic abilities and optimistic about their chance of success in college, the same study indicates that former foster youth lag behind their college peers in academic performance.” So, even when they feel confident coming in they still tend to perform below expectations. On the one hand, this calls into question some serious assumptions we have about student performance and its connection to one’s self-confidence. While on the other it points to an overall systemic failing of those coming from foster care.
I do not really have a solution yet to the problem of students coming out of foster care, and the challenges that accompany them in college. But I do think the fact we largely fail to recognize this population produces a great disservice to those students. We already spend a great deal of time and resources engaging in programs that reach students in area high schools. I wonder if some of those same strategies and intentional engagement with high school students would work well in the context of specific groups in and part of the foster care system. I think the first step comes in the mere recognition of this population, intentional engagement with students from foster care, and creative problem solving when issues do arise.