The effectiveness of a self-determination coaching model for promoting post-secondary success among college students with foster care backgrounds

Blakeslee, J., Miller, R., & Uretsky, M. (2022). Efficacy of the Project Futures self-determination coaching model for college students with foster care backgrounds and mental health challenges. Children and Youth Services Review, 138, 106507.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Evidence shows that young people from foster care backgrounds are less likely to attend or thrive in college than their peers.
  • Poor mental health conditions, untreated mental health stress, and lack of supportive relationships lead to more hardships in college.
  • While academic support systems are beneficial, foster care youths can still struggle.
    • For instance, students with a history of foster care can still struggle with keeping up with coursework and paying for college expenses.
  • This study tests an intervention model called Project Futures to evaluate a support program that promotes post-secondary success and engagement among college students with foster care backgrounds and mental health issues.
  • There’s evidence that the post-secondary program affected various targeted outcomes (empowerment, mental health self-efficacy, self-determination, career-related self-efficacy, etc.) post-intervention and at the 6-month follow-up.
  • Participants in the intervention group reported higher GPAs and were more likely to be still enrolled during the follow-up period than the participants in the control group.
  • Structured coaching approaches have the potential to strengthen self-efficacy and self-determination in a way that influences retention and, potentially, degree completion for foster care youths.
  • Because of the prevalence of mental health issues among this population and the lack of campus-based clinical support, it might be more practical for some programs to focus on boosting self-determination and setting mental health goals.
  • There is a need for more flexible, sensitive programming that meets foster youths’ multidimensional needs.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Post-secondary students transitioning from foster care face a range of unique challenges to academic engagement and success, and the typical mental health stressors experienced by college-age young adults are exacerbated by experiences of trauma common to those with foster care experience. Many campuses have introduced specialized support programs for these students, but few have been rigorously tested. This study is the first identified randomized experiment to evaluate a post-secondary support program for enrolled college students with foster care backgrounds and mental health challenges. We report findings from a pilot intervention study testing the Project Futures model, which includes one-on-one coaching from near-peers around self-determination and self-efficacy related to mental health, academics, and other inhibitors of educational success. Overall, though this was a small pilot RCT (N = 35), analysis showed evidence of intervention impact on important targeted outcomes at post-intervention and/or 6-month follow-up, including self-determination, career-related self-efficacy and career exploration activities, and mental health self-efficacy and empowerment. Further, compared to the control group, intervention participants had a higher reported GPA and were more likely to still be enrolled in school at follow-up. The study findings suggest that such structured coaching approaches can increase self-determination and self-efficacy in ways that may impact retention and potentially degree completion for foster youth. We discuss these findings in the context of specialized campus support programming for youth with foster care histories, as well as important limitations in our study, and recommendations for future research, practice, and policy.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study tested the efficacy of an intervention designed for post-secondary students with foster care backgrounds and self-identified mental health stressors. Overall, though this was a small pilot RCT, analysis showed evidence of intervention impact on important targeted outcomes, with more consistent findings for project-specific measures compared to validated scales. First, analyses identified a consistent and large intervention effect on the project-specific measure of self-determination; however, there was no evidence of a relationship between treatment condition and the validated AIR self-determination survey. The findings were clearer for validated measures of career-specific and mental health-related self-efficacy at post-intervention, although the intervention effect was not sustained at follow-up. On the other hand, there was a consistent finding for an intervention-specific index of career exploration activities. Lastly, there are no differences in participant-reported academic outcomes at post-intervention, which would have been the end of spring term (in fact all participants were still enrolled). However, there was a difference on both career exploration and academic outcomes the following fall term, suggesting that the intervention helped students manage challenges to maintaining ongoing enrollment that emerge over the summer.

The present findings further validate the efficacy of increasing foster youth self-determination as a mechanism to broadly support transition-related goals. Similar to the Better Futures model from which the present model was adapted, which focused on increasing enrollment of secondary students with mental health challenges in post-secondary education (Geenen, Powers, Phillips, et al. 2015; Phillips, Powers, Geenen et al., 2015), Project Futures was implemented using near-peers, or foster care or mental health system alumni who were further along in college, as coaches. Similar to Better Futures, this model also demonstrated efficacy with measures of self-determination and mental health efficacy and empowerment, as well as career-related self-efficacy (Geenen et al., 2014). These findings also echo the original application of the self-determination coaching model, called My Life, which used staff coaches and had a broader focus on foster youth transition goals; a series of prior studies showed that the coaching approach demonstrated similar effectiveness for self-determination and self-efficacy outcomes, among others (Blakeslee et al., 2020, Geenen et al., 2013, Powers et al., 2012). Thus, our findings further confirm that the self-determination coaching model itself can be adapted and maintain effectiveness for impacting targeted mechanisms. However, this application, with enrolled undergraduates experiencing mental health stressors, also demonstrated the efficacy on the important targeted outcome of college retention, in addition to findings for career-related self-efficacy and exploration beyond what has been previously found.

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