I’ve been thinking about the the terrible situation that foster kids with college aspirations find themselves in. They face all the challenges of “new gen” students–minorities, poor kids, first in their family to go to college, immigrants–and many more. What I’ve learned is that what succeeds with foster kids also works with “new gen” students–that is the story of Western Michigan University and CUNY.

When it comes to getting a decent education, no group gets shortchanged more than foster kids. Only half of them graduate from high school, compared to 85% of their classmates. While almost all of them say they want to go to college, only about 20% – less than a third of their peers – get there. Most depressingly, estimates of the number of foster youth who start college and earn a bachelor’s degree range from 11% to 1% (you read that figure right).

Typically, foster kids are bounced around from one family to the next, regularly confronting trauma, getting a sketchy education that leaves them unprepared for the demands of college. There’s no one to help them complete college applications, obtain financial aid and decide which school to attend – for that matter, there’s no one to teach them how to drive, explain the dos and don’ts of credit cards or come to their rescue if they get in trouble.

Because of their weak preparation, foster kids who start college are often consigned to remedial classes, prolonging the time they spend in school and reduce their chances of graduating. Small wonder, then, that so few of them earn a degree.

Western Michigan University (WMU) has rewritten this dismal script. Here’s the attention-grabbing fact: 44% of foster youth receive a bachelor’s degree, a figure that’s within hailing distance of the campus-wide 50% graduation rate and far better than the national average.

WMU provides up to $13,400 in financial aid, which, together with federal funds, enables foster kids to afford college. They live together on campus, building a community of mutual support. What matters most is the fact that they have someone they can turn to, for personal as well as academic help. Their coach – adviser, tutor and life coach – becomes the parent that many of them never had.

The research confirms what we intuitively know: students flourish with help from someone who, as several undergraduates told me, “has your back”. In a large-scale experiment, cited by Frederick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute in a Forbes column, undergrads with two years of consistent access to academic advisers were 14% more likely than the control group to have remained in college a year later.

The relevance of the WMU approach is not limited to foster kids. On the contrary, what works for them can be adapted to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of college students every year, increasing the likelihood that they will graduate.

For many freshmen, college marks an abrupt change from home. Suddenly on their own, they benefit from having a steady hand to guide them through the shoals – to help them pick their courses and overcome their doubts about whether they belong in school.

Whatever strategy the university adopts, it’s a sure bet that a dose of loving care will figure heavily in the equation.

Advising forms the core of a City University of New York (Cuny) initiative designed to boost graduation rates. The 25,000 community college students and a smaller number of bachelor’s degree candidates are mostly new-gen youth. The program’s components resemble WMU’s model, adapted to meet the needs of these students, including financial aid, subsidized textbooks, free public transportation and course scheduling that enables them to balance school, work and home responsibilities.

Ask the Cuny students why this program is so effective and they emphasize the importance of their adviser – “my second mom”.

There is no doubting the effectiveness the Cuny approach. Since the start of the community college program, 53% of the students have earned an associate degree in three years, more than double the national and Cuny-wide completion rates. Nearly 60% of the first class of bachelor’s degree students – about twice the college’s current graduation rate – graduated in four years. No other initiative aimed at keeping students on track comes close.

WMU has figured out what foster kids need and Cuny has accomplished the same for new-gen youth. Every university needs to do the same – to identify and remove the barriers to student success, helping more of them cross the finish line. Whatever strategy the university adopts, it’s a sure bet that a hefty dose of tender loving care will figure heavily in the equation.

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