03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Two Percent Ain't Good Enough

Jacquelyn McCroskey, 2003's social worker of the year and a widely respected faculty member at USC's School of Social Work, stalks the stage at a conference to support former foster youth in higher education. Her message is unequivocal and unapologetic: when it comes to public education in L.A. County, like the rest of the country, foster kids are the worst off in an unacceptable system.

Stats flash on the screen behind her. Of foster kids in LAUSD high schools, only 16.6 percent are "proficient" or "advanced" in English; what is maybe even more telling is that 28 percent of the general population has high English aptitude. Then McCroskey describes high school graduation rates: 20 percent of foster youth graduate from high school, while 60 percent graduate in the general population.

"It is amazing that a 60 percent graduation rate is acceptable," McCroskey says. "If anyone needs a call to action, this should be a call to action."

She is speaking to a hundred or more foster care advocates and college administrators who have gathered for the third annual "Creating a Blueprint" conference, a strategy session on how to increase the numbers of foster youth who earn higher education degrees. These people get the problem and are fighting to change it.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the general population's collective inaction on the matter, it is clear that the majority of folks don't really understand the scope of the problem.

For one thing it means that only one fifth of foster youth in Los Angeles even have the chance to apply to college. Now add in the reality that for most foster youth their 18th birthday is quickly followed with ejection from the system. Unlike their parented-peers who, on average, receive thousands of dollars in help all the way into their 30s, former foster youth, already having suffered the trauma of being separated from their family and then reared by a flawed system, are left on their own.

In an ideal world they would have at least had some college counseling, but in L.A. County, McCroskey points out that the ratio of counselors to students is 1 to 600. "Navigating those systems alone is not easily done," she says. "It's not even easy for me and I know them well." The result is confused foster youth that never enroll, and L.A. ends up looking very much like the rest of the nation with only 2-3 percent of foster youth ever graduating from college.

Instead of the experience of shared thought and study in a community college or university, the expectations for foster youth are far lower. For the 1,400 to 1,600 18-year-olds who age out of the system in L.A. every year and the 4,000-5,000 throughout California, accepted low expectations have had dismal results turning foster children into functioning adults.

Within 18 months of leaving the system, one-fourth will have been incarcerated, one-fifth will have experienced homelessness and one-third will suffer major depression.

Beyond the implications for the foster youths themselves, this is a missed opportunity that should make us all wince.

A study released earlier this year found that extending care past 18 and thus allowing foster youth the stability to attend college made fiscal sense. Conducted by the University of Washington School of Social Work, the study found that caring for young adults until age 21 will represent a return of $2.40 on every government dollar spent in California.

The study narrowly focuses on how much more money youths will make over their lifetime with as little as one or two years of college, and does not take into account the vast savings derived from reduced state involvement in these young people's lives. Leaving homeless shelters and emergency rooms out of the equation and getting foster youth on the college track is a windfall: in California, the Department of Corrections estimates an annual cost $53,000 to incarcerate and individual.

"Allowing them [foster youth] to remain in care appears to at least double the likelihood that they will complete at least a year of college," Mark Courtney, the study's author and the country's preeminent researcher in the outcomes of foster youth told me a few months back. "In today's labor market, that is a huge benefit, and the absence of that benefit becomes a cost to society. It is a major missed opportunity."

Despite empirical evidence that serving these youth is fiscally beneficial, and the overriding moral imperative to do it, victories are still won only a handful of youth at a time.

In the courtyard outside the conference hall a young man named Jorge Vargas beckons me over. He says he read a story I wrote about foster care in the LA Weekly and recognized my name by the tag dangling around my neck. He tells me he works for Los Angeles Community College's Guardian Scholar's Program and that the young man next to him, 18-year-old Roy Flores, is one of 34 former foster youth who are part of the program.

Funded by the Stuart Foundation, the program is the brainchild of former foster youth and LACC Foundation President David Ambroz. I had met Ambroz a couple of weeks before and he had emailed me an explanation of the initiative: "For students who may have attended eight or ten or fifteen schools during the time they were placed in foster care, just pulling all of their transcripts together to send to a college can be an overwhelming task. This grant, which funds a program called Guardian Scholars, will enable the College to provide a 'one-stop shop' for foster youth pursuing a college education."

Roy Flores, who entered foster care at eight-years-old, says that he is enjoying college, something he couldn't have done without Ambroz's ambitious program and the Stuart Foundation's generous grant. "I got to say," he says. "That without guardian scholars I'd be lost."

Well, the messed up truth is that a lot of foster youth are lost, and as it stands there aren't very many ways for them to find the path to education let alone higher education. That is not acceptable. That is a call to action.

The following are a list of organizations that focus on equal educational opportunities for all children. Familiarize yourself with their mission and see how you can help.

The Institute for College Access and Success:
United Friends of the Children:
The Stuart Foundation:
The LACC Foundation:
The Walter S. Johnson Foundation:

And if you want to see McCroskey and the other experts at the conference in action visit College Pathways at: