Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
If you’re reading this article on LinkedIn, consider yourself lucky: based on the platform’s user demographics, you’ve most likely completed some level of higher education. You’ve succeeded in the college classroom, and this means you stand a better chance of living a longer, healthier life. Professional certificates and college degrees lead to better paying jobs and a lifetime’s worth of greater access to nutritious food, healthy housing, transportation and most of the other resources we all need to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Unfortunately, when it comes to higher education, not everyone has the same opportunities. For an aspiring student experiencing financial difficulties, even paying the submission fee for a college application can be an insurmountable burden. Enrolled students who face food insecurity, unaddressed mental health challenges, housing insecurity and other factors can find it more difficult to succeed in the classroom.
Every student will experience challenges along the way. But, first-generation students, students who have faced childhood trauma, students of color, students from low-income households and members of the LGBTQ+ community are all more likely to face significant hurdles, and with fewer fallback resources. Without access to the resources that promote academic success, students are more likely to drop out, and this increases their odds of experiencing chronic illness as an adult.
That’s precisely why Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) makes so many investments to support students from all walks of life, including youth transitioning out of North Carolina’s foster care system.
Supporting the transition from foster care to the college classroom
Young adults leaving foster care systems can face especially difficult barriers to college enrollment and success. Research from Better Care Network (PDF) suggests that 84% of 17 to 18-year-old youth in foster care want to go to college – but only 20% follow through on their ambitions. Other research finds that only 3 to 4% of youth who transition out of foster care will obtain a four-year college degree. Between 2–6% will receive a two-year degree. For perspective, keep in mind that in 2019, 39% of all adults aged 25-29 (PDF) had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. 49% had earned an associate degree or higher.
Mentorship. Financial and emotional support. Stability. A reliable voice to turn to for perspective and help. These are the sorts of intangibles that any student needs – and yet many young adults who’ve transitioned out of foster care don’t have these things. This is not to mention other fundamental necessities like housing; connectivity and computer access; and money for food, books and social activities.
Just recently, Blue Cross NC awarded $500,000 to the Crosby Scholars Community Partnership. This investment will fund a five-year pilot program to increase post-secondary enrollment among Forsyth County youth in foster care. Students in the LIGHHT (Leadership, Integrity, Goals, Honesty, Healing, Triumph) initiative will benefit from programming, one-on-one advising and grants to help them to enroll, afford and prepare for college. The initiative will also feature workshops to help foster parents understand how to help children under their care pursue post-secondary plans.
Some might wonder why Blue Cross NC has made this and numerous other investments to support youth who are transitioning out of foster care to independent living. From my perspective, there’s no mystery at all: Working with community partners to close gaps in educational attainment in the short term will close gaps in health in the long term.
Individual education, family well-being, community health
Helping aspiring students pursue their ambitions isn’t just good for the individual. It’s also good for the health of our state. Most jobs now require skilled training beyond a high school diploma, yet fewer than half of North Carolinians between the ages of 25 and 44 have pursued post-secondary education (PDF). That number is even lower among individuals from underserved communities. Stifled educational aspirations can contribute to long-term financial and health disparities, which can get passed on from one generation to the next and have far-reaching impacts on community well-being.
In short, one person’s post-secondary success strengthens family well-being, grows North Carolina’s workforce and economy, and promotes public health.
I know from my own story, getting to and succeeding in higher education can be quite difficult for some students, even in a state like North Carolina with robust community college and public university systems. I was lucky. When I was in high school, I had an uncle who encouraged me to join him on his college journey, which happened to be at Appalachian State. It wasn’t always easy, and sacrifices had to be made; I worked to help cover my expenses. But I was fortunate because I could do what it took to continue my education.
I remember to this day the first time I drove up NC Highway 421 and reached the “Welcome to Boone” sign at the edge of town. That highway had transported me to another world. As soon as I set foot on Sanford Mall under the shadow of looming Howard’s Knob, I knew Boone was the place for me, where I’d find new opportunities and plenty of life adventures. I’d also have a lifeline back home when things got tough. By themselves, my academic aspirations would have been no guarantee of success. I struggled in college, but that is a story for another time. Without a robust support network, I couldn’t have dedicated my energies to studying and building a network of friends and mentors. I might not have graduated.
Those formative university experiences still influence the work I do today. At Blue Cross NC, we recognize that expanding access to non-clinical resources for health and well-being is integral to our mission to make health care better for all. I’m especially passionate about our support for educational initiatives. Helping children and young people succeed in the classroom can break intergenerational cycles of poverty and get North Carolinians on track toward a life of prosperity and good health.
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