Make or Break: A Quantitative Study of College-going and College Leaving among Foster Care Youth
Nathanael Okpych

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Chicago

Primary Discipline

Youth in foster care are at great risk of dropping out of college, and fewer than 1 in 10 earn a degree by their mid-20s. Exiting college without a degree has dire consequences because these young people are expected to become economically self-sufficient earlier than most of their peers, oftentimes without the safety net of family resources and support. Given the lack of rigorous quantitative research examining persistence and attrition among this population, I will investigate four issues that have implications for policy and intervention strategies. Data will come from a longitudinal study of several hundred adolescents and young adults in foster care in three Midwestern states that will be linked to college records from the National Student Clearinghouse. First, several traditional predictors of attrition will be assessed (e.g., high school grades), as well as factors that are specific to youth in foster care (e.g., number of placement changes). Second, I will develop a measure of vigilant self-reliance (VSR), an identity forged during the instability of foster care characterized by a disavowal of dependence, and assess whether VSR stymies college persistence. Third, I will identify distinct trajectories of college leaving via descriptive analyses and use of latent trajectory models, and describe characteristics of youth who are most likely to traverse each pathway. Fourth, I will examine whether state policy that extends foster care eligibility beyond age 18 increases the likelihood that youth persist in college. Identification of pathways of college exit can guide the timing of interventions, VSR and other predictors of attrition may be important targets of retention strategies for foster youth, and analysis of extended foster care is pertinent to a timely policy issue. Currently, about three in five states have yet to take up federal legislation enacted in 2010 that permits the extension of foster care to age 21.
About Nathanael Okpych
Nathanael Okpych is a doctoral candidate at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He is also completing an M.S. in Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the same institution. He holds a B.A. in Psychology and an M.S.W., both from Rutgers University, as well as an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Duquesne University. In the areas of mental health/social work, he has worked as a counselor in a residential treatment facility, a therapist in a large urban high school, and a care coordinator for a multidisciplinary treatment team. Nathanael also has five years of experience working in college residence life as a resident assistant and building director. These two threads of professional experience inform his research on understanding and promoting psychosocial well-being and college completion for youth with foster care involvement. Nathanael is a recipient of the Doris Duke Fellowship for the Promotion of Child Well-Being. His manuscript (co-authored with Dr. James Yu) on the history of evidence-based practice in social work was awarded the Frank R. Breul Memorial prize for best article published in Social Service Review in 2014.

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