Research Watch

Extending time in foster care: Potential educational benefits for youth

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Elizabeth Mueller

Courtney, M., & Hook, J. (2017). The potential educational benefits of extending foster care to young adults: Findings from a natural experiment. Child and Youth Services Review, 72, 124-132.


Previous research illustrated that additional educational attainment could improve future employment opportunities among youth in care transitioning to adulthood. This study examined the importance of long-term outcomes for youth living in out-of-home care and how an extended period of time in foster care supported further educational attainment.

The study was conducted in three Midwest states of America. Data used were from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, which is a longitudinal study (Midwest Study) that follows child welfare involved youth as they age out of care and transition into adulthood. To be eligible for the study, child welfare involved youth needed to be in out of home care for a minimum of one year, and over the age of 17 years old (mean age = 20, ranging from 17 to 26).  732 eligible youth were interviewed between May 2002 and March 2003. There was a total of five sample “waves”. In addition to measuring gender, race and age in wave 1, at each “wave” the following variables were measured: plans for college, reading level, number of placements when in the child welfare system, educational attainment, drug or alcohol use, and level of delinquency. At wave five, researchers focused on the highest level of educational attainment. The attrition rate for the study was 90.8% with mostly males dropping out by the end of the study.

The study used an ordinal logistic regression to analyze the level of youth educational attainment. Three outcome variables, based on level of attained education, were created: (1) “less than high school,” (2) completion of high school or any equivalency of completion, and (3) one year of university or more. Findings showed that at the age of 26, 18% of the youth who aged out of care were yet to attain a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED), 41% had completed high school but had not continued to post-secondary education, and 41% had completed one or more years of post-secondary education. Another important finding from the study was that for every additional year in care, child welfare involved youth were 46% more likely to reach the next level of educational attainment. After controlling for potential confounding variables (e.g., race, age, college plans) related to policy and procedures differences in different states, there was no significant difference in educational attainment based on what state these youths lived in.

Methodological Notes

A limitation to this study is that the youth were from three different states and the researchers were not able to control for state policies other than extended care or state context. Authors suggested that alternate policies may account for difference between states but it was unlikely. The attrition rate in this study was very high and results obtained may not be generalizable to all youth involved with child welfare system due to its heterogeneous nature from different states.