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Kresge gift will provide state foster youth support network

by John Greenhoe

Dec. 1, 2011 | WMU News

Photo if Kresge President Rip Rapson.
Kresge President Rip Rapson
KALAMAZOO--In less than four years, Western Michigan University has built a highly successful support program for former foster youth that is considered among the largest and most inclusive programs of its type in the country. Now, thanks in large part to the generosity of the Kresge Foundation, WMU has an opportunity to stimulate similar assistance programs across the state of Michigan.

A $700,000 investment from the Kresge Foundation is the cornerstone of a three-year, $1 million initiative that will help increasing numbers of current and former foster youth gain college access. The program will create a network of state colleges and universities that will share foster-youth related best practices for college preparation and increasing college enrollment and graduation rates. Included in the Kresge gift is a $200,000 challenge match that will serve as an incentive to raise additional funds for the project.

Traditionally, the odds have been stacked against foster youth and their college aspirations. National statistics show that while 70 percent of foster youth express a desire to attend college, fewer than 3 percent eventually earn a degree.

"This low attainment rate makes it much more difficult for foster youth to successfully transition into adulthood and meaningful careers," says Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Troy, Mich.-based Kresge Foundation. While the statistics are indeed troubling, Rapson feels WMU is ready to address the issue.

"Western Michigan University has made an impressive institutional commitment to foster youth and is well-positioned to play an important statewide leadership role in boosting the attainment level of this high-need, high-potential population," notes Rapson. "We are pleased to support WMU's efforts to provide communities with the information and tools needed to help foster youth gain college degrees, which will give them the best possible chance of success."

WMU's statewide learning network will also extend to non-higher education institutions seeking to support foster youth. To accomplish that, WMU will work closely with the Michigan College Access Network--known as MCAN--which seeks to dramatically increase the college participation and completion rate in Michigan, particularly among low-income students, first-generation students and students of color. Central to MCAN's work is the coordination of the state's various college access programs and services.

WMU's statewide initiative will also create a high-quality and youth-friendly website that promotes foster youth college access and success. The website will provide foster youth and their support networks with free information about getting ready for college. Both the statewide consortium and website will be used to reach out to foster youth beginning at age 12 so they might start considering college options before they attend high school.

"We need to reach out to Michigan's foster youth population at the earliest possible age," says WMU President John M. Dunn. "Especially because of the challenging odds that these young people face, we must work aggressively to help them prepare for and consider college options during their early formative years. We're grateful to the Kresge Foundation for allowing us the opportunity to do just that."

The Kresge Foundation is a $3.1 billion private foundation that seeks to influence the quality of life for future generations through its support of nonprofit organizations in six fields: health, the environment, arts and culture, education, human services and community development. Fostering greater access to and success in postsecondary education for low-income, minority and first-generation college students is the focus of Kresge's Education grantmaking. In 2010, Kresge awarded more than $23 million in grants to support higher education in the United States and South Africa. For more information, visit the Foundation website:

WMU's formal assistance program for students from foster care began in 2008. The John Seita Scholars Program is named for a three-time WMU alumnus who grew up in foster care. It provides tuition and a host of support services for former foster youth who attend WMU. There are now approximately 140 students in the program, which has been lauded for its successful outcomes. For example, retention rates for the Seita Scholars have compared favorably to retention rates for all college students nationally.

Many of the lessons learned during the formative years of the Seita Scholars program will be referenced as best practices as the statewide consortium is formed and the youth-friendly website is constructed.