This study provides an analysis of California State University (CSU)’s campus-based support programs for students with foster care experience.

California has long been considered a champion for its support for youth who experience foster care, and is particularly noteworthy in creating campus-based programs to support their postsecondary education. As the largest university system in the U.S., CSU plays an important role in supporting positive life outcomes for students who have experienced foster care, with an estimated annual enrollment of 3,000-3,500 students with foster care history.

For this study, we engaged with 23 support program staff members from across the CSU system to develop a deep understanding of high-impact practices, successes, and challenges. Research findings are used to develop actionable recommendations at the campus, system, state, and federal levels. We hope this study will be used to encourage greater investment in college campus support programs for foster youth.

Map of CSU Foster Youth Campus Support Programs

Key Findings

1. Foster youth campus support programs deliver critical advising services that meet students’ needs.

Staff members emphasized holistic and wrap-around supports that include intentional advising, financial aid, social support, and mentoring. Staff establish trusting relationships with foster youth, and programs serve as a one-stop shop for their needs.

2. Educational and social/cultural programming and case management are common practices that exemplify quality and equity across campus support programs.

Educational programming introduced students to financial literacy, healthy relationships, mental health, Cal-Fresh enrollment, and leadership principles through workshops and retreats. Social/cultural programming included attending theater performances, the beach, museums, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and celebrating students’ birthdays and graduation ceremonies.

3. Financial support is inadequate for foster youth students and campus support programs.

Foster youth encounter difficulties in paying for college due to their lower family contribution levels coupled with higher unmet financial needs. Staff highlighted the limited availability of financial aid and the historical underfunding of foster youth support programs as major challenges, and expressed struggles with assisting students in navigating the complexities of funding their education.

4. Trust and support must be strengthened between campus support program staff and campus leadership.

Staff had urgent concerns about a lack of support and understanding from the administration fueled by bureaucratic campus policies, administration turnover, and limited opportunities to strengthen better working and more collaborative relationships with their leadership. Staff also shared anecdotes of stigmatization of foster students by campus leadership, contributing to low morale and high staff turnover that pose a significant challenge in providing stability and consistency for foster students.

5. Foster youth support programs measure success beyond graduation and retention statistics.

Staff prioritize the well-being and basic needs of their students as their primary concern. Providing emotional support, guidance, financial assistance, and building relationships with the students are key indicators of program success.

Program Photos & Interview Quotes

CSU Dominguez Hills Toro Guardian Scholars at a graduation & recognition ceremony (Image credit: CSU Dominguez Hills Toro Guardian Scholars Program)

SDSU Guardian Scholars spend time with emotional support dogs (Image credit: SDSU Guardian Scholars Program)

Foster youth have different experiences; they don’t have family privilege, and universities aren’t built for student[s] like them to succeed. So oftentimes we have to fill in those gaps. The campus doesn’t have the resources; we have to fundraise the money and look for them [identify funding opportunities for the students].
Staff Member
You must have a program willing to focus on building healthy, trusting relationships with students. It cannot be a pure financial aid service or a referral service. The program must implement strategies to welcome students, inform and empower students to navigate their college experience, and hold students accountable who do not meet minimum requirements of the program so they can secure scholarships. An active community of students can trust each other, support each other, and hold each other accountable to be the best versions of themselves.
Staff Member

Policy Recommendations

We recommend 10 policy changes based on the study findings for supporting foster youth practices in the California State University system. We have organized implications for policy by the CSU system, the state of California, and federal levels.

California State University System

1. Remove all age restrictions for campus support programs.
2. Create a foster youth transition pathway program (e.g., EOP summer bridge).
3. Invest in professional development consortiums for staff that support foster youth to improve and share best practices.

State of California

4. Provide financial support toward reunification and permanency for families impacted by the foster care system.
5. Increase Chafee Grant funding and the age limit at which students can access these grants.
6. Create systems to track college outcomes of foster youth in the CSU, UC, and CCC systems.


7. Remove satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirement policies for students who experienced foster care.
8. Increase maximum financial cost of attendance for students who experienced foster care.
9. Create a nationwide foster youth college access and retention database.
10. Establish complete loan forgiveness for students who experienced foster care.