Bowling with Bumpers: Increasing Social Capital for Foster Care Youth

January 31, 2023 by Paige Ackman


At any given time, there are roughly 400,000 children in foster care in the United States.[1]  Evident by the disturbing statistics for foster youth outcomes, this system is largely failing to adequately support foster youth.  Kids in foster care are four times more likely than other children to attempt suicide.[2]  50% of foster youth will not graduate from high school on time.[3] 33% of homeless young adults were previously in foster care.[4]

While there are numerous causes behind these troubling outcomes, this paper will focus on one specific issue that is causing negative outcomes for foster youth: aging out of the system.  Aging out of the system occurs when a youth has not been reunited with their family or adopted but reaches an age where they no longer qualify for foster care services.  Historically, this age has been set at 18, in order to better support our foster youth, I argue that the age of exit should be raised to 25.


Outcomes for Youth Who Age out of the System

A myriad of issues face children aging out of foster care.  Youth who age out of the foster care system are at a very high risk of becoming homeless.[5]  For youth who age out at 18, one in five find themselves immediately homeless, and 36% find themselves homeless at least once by the age of 26.[6]

Youth who age out of foster care are also more likely to experience worse educational outcomes.  Only 58% graduate high school (compared to 87% of the general population), and only 8% earn a college diploma by the age of 26.[7]  This is especially concerning given 70% of children in foster care say they would like to attend college one day.[8]

Due in part to the high causal effect between education and income, youth who age out of foster care tend to have lower incomes compared to their peers.[9]  In fact, very few youths who age out of foster care are able to earn a livable wage.[10]  Unemployment for youth who age out of foster care is lower than any other group, with only 46% being employed by the age of 24.[11]  When they are able to succeed in finding employment, it is often very unstable.[12]

Finally, there is a significant link between aging out of foster care and involvement with the criminal justice system.  Commonly referred to as the “placement to prison pipeline,” a quarter of foster care alumni become involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care.[13]  This is especially problematic for people of color, who are already disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.[14]  It is incredibly difficult to re-enter society after spending any time in prison, making it even more difficult for alumni of the foster system to succeed in society.[15]


The Argument for Extending Care

The solution that is the focus of this memo is extending the age of care to 25.  This does not mean that everyone who goes through the system will stay in until the age of 25, but rather this give youth a larger period to transition to adulthood.  In many cases, extending care may not mean having a youth stay in foster care until 25, but may include more assistive services such as help with finding housing or employment.  There are many arguments for raising the age to 25, but I will focus on two: college attainment and brain science.

Graduating from college has enormous benefits on a person’s life, and we should want to encourage foster youth to complete college degrees.[16]  In addition to the already significant obstacles associated with foster youth completing college (only about 3% of foster youth complete a college degree) removing them from care at the age of 21 places a large burden on their ability to complete their program.[17] Most youth who do go to college will have not completed a college degree by the age of 21.[18]  The average student takes six-years to complete their degree, which means a typical student who enrolls in college immediately following high school graduation will complete their degree around age 24.[19]  Furthermore, this age of 24 assumes immediate enrollment which may be more difficult for foster youth who have already faced instability, insecurity, and trauma.  By having an age of exit set at 21, foster youth will be removed from the system before they can complete college.  This likely encourages foster youth to not attend college at all.  If youth know they will lose support at age 21, they justifiably may decide that the roughly three years spent between high school graduation and turning 21 are better spent working and saving up money rather than furthering their education.  Extending the age to 25 gives foster youth a more comfortable barrier to do both.  This gives youth roughly seven years after high school graduation to complete a college degree and to save up enough money to become completely independent.

Raising the age of exit to 25 is also more aligned with contemporary understandings of how our brains develop.  The human brain continues to develop until roughly the age of 25, with the latest development happening in the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning and decision making.[20]  We can see the results of this in several places.  For example, this tendency towards rash behavior coupled with other difficulties making decisions also leads to Americans between 19-24 dying at a higher rate than anyone under the age of 80.[21]  This information about brain science likely does not surprise anyone—and in fact is more in line with how we treat young adults.  People aged 18-25 are not treated the same as their older peers.  For example, many rental companies do not rent to anyone below 25.[22]  This is not a new phenomenon either, 2,000 years ago the Roman Empire set their age of full maturity at age 25.[23]  Allowing youth to continue to receive foster care assistance until they are 25 is more developmentally appropriate and better reflects young people’s place within society.


[1] See National Data Shows Number of Children in Foster Care Decreases for the Third Consecutive Year, Administration for Children & Families (Nov. 19, 2021),

[2] See The Problem, foster america,

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5]  See Older Youth Housing, Financial Literacy and Other Supports, National Conference of State Legislatures,

[6] See id.

[7]  See National Conference of State Legislatures, supra note 5.

[8]  See id.

[9]  See Coming of Age: Employment Outcomes for Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care Through Their Middle Twenties, U.S Dep’t of Health & Hum. Serv.,

[10] See National Conference of State Legislatures, supra note 5.

[11] See id.

[12] See U.S Dep’t of Health & Hum. Serv., supra note 9.

[13] See What is the foster care to prison pipeline?, Juvenile Law Center,

[14] See Shasta N. Inman, Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice, aba,

[15] See Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry: Research Findings from the Urban Institute’s Prisoner Reentry Portfolio, Urban Institute (2006),

[16] See Education and Lifetime Earnings, social security administration,

[17] See Higher Education for Foster Youth, nfyi,

[18] See Mariah Stewart, The Average Student Takes Six Years to Earn a Four-Year Degree. Some States, Schools, and Organizations Are Working to Change That, insight into diversity (May 19, 2020),

[19] See id.

[20] See John G. Cottone, Why 25 Could Be the New 18, Psychology Today (July 19, 2021),

[21] See id.

[22] See Cottone, supra note 20.

[23] See id.