How to get more care leavers to university – and why it matters

How to get more care leavers to university – and why it matters

Each year, more than 400,000 students reach their dream of starting university in Australia. Among them are young people who’ve overcome monumental barriers to get there.

According to Universities Australia, between 2008 and 2015 Australian universities saw a 94 per cent increase in students with a disability; a 74 per cent increase in Indigenous students; a 50 per cent increase in students from low socio-economic backgrounds; and a 45 per cent increase in students from remote or regional areas.

Behind this surge in participation is the work of groups like La Trobe’s Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research, led by Dr Andrew Harvey. They’re taking action on an important, but hidden, group of young people whose access to higher education is extremely diminished: care leavers.

Who are care leavers?

Care leavers are young people who are finishing time living in out-of-home care. In Australia, out-of-home care is a statutory care arrangement for people under 18 who can’t live with their birth families due to chronic child abuse or neglect.

With the state government acting as their legal guardian, young people are placed with alternate caregivers, like a foster carer, relative, or someone in their social network. They might also live in a residential building under the care of paid staff, or live independently in lead tenant households.

At 30 June 2016, close to 46,500 young people were in out-of-home care in Australia. Around a quarter of these young people leave care each year – many on their 18th birthday.

Only 1 per cent of care leavers reach university

New research by Andrew and his colleagues confirms that care leavers are critically underrepresented in higher education.

“Data suggested the transition rate of care leavers into higher education was extremely low, with perhaps as few as one per cent of them accessing it in their lifetimes,” Andrew says.

“With over 40,000 Australians in care, the effective exclusion of that group from our universities is a national disgrace.”

For care leavers, getting to university can be extraordinarily difficult. The compound disadvantage they face means they need to overcome significant social and economic barriers to transition to university. These include unstable housing or homelessness; high rates of mental illness associated with past abuse and neglect; substance abuse issues; involvement in the youth criminal justice system; early parenthood; unemployment and underemployment; and low educational attainment.

Missing out on university further excludes care leavers from the lifetime rewards brought by higher education, such as improved employment opportunities and earning potential.

This makes care leavers’ access to university a matter of social justice. And it’s an issue that Andrew is tackling with award-winning results.

Breaking higher education barriers for care leavers

The Centre is leading a joint project between La Trobe University and Federation University to improve the progression of care leavers into higher education.

Called the Higher Education for Care Leavers Strategy, the project supports care leavers to access and succeed at university. It provides initiatives like outreach to schools, tailored support with applications and enrolments, accommodation assistance, and financial aid, including scholarships, financial counselling and a Care Leaver Bursary. The project recently won an Australian Financial Review Higher Education Award for Equity and Opportunity.

“This was the first major collaborative project to consider care leavers as an equity group in higher education,” Andrew says.

“There are now 122 care leaver undergraduate students at La Trobe University and Federation University. This greater number of care leavers enrolling and re-enrolling is a direct result of the strategy.”

Encouraging care leavers to attend university continues La Trobe’s tradition of providing alternative pathways to university. From our Aspire Early Admissions Program, which rewards positive community contributions, to our Access Scholarships for students with financial hardship or educational disadvantage, we’re a university where inclusiveness and globally recognised excellence meet.

So if you’re looking for help, rest assured. There’s more than one way to get to university.

Need support to reach university? La Trobe offers a range of different pathways to help you achieve. And if you or someone you know has spent time in care, check out our unique support for Care Leavers.

Dr Andrew Harvey

Dr Andrew Harvey is Director of La Trobe University's Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research.