A Big Gift from a Houston Couple to Support Foster Kids Navigating College

photo: sirtravelalot/shutterstock

photo: sirtravelalot/shutterstock

Thanks to Andy and Andrea Diamond, $17 million will fund a University of Houston effort to better support its students in or aging out of the foster care system. With the gift, the couple joins the small but growing number of givers intent on helping foster kids succeed.

It’s no secret that kids leaving the foster system face an uphill battle. More than a third leave the system without graduating from high school, according to the Children’s Law Center of California. About a third suffer from mental health disorders, especially post-traumatic stress. The kids in the system who graduate from high school are less likely than their peers to enroll in college, even though many want to.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, about 20 percent of foster kids who graduate from high school head on to college, compared to 60 percent of their peers. Those who make it to college are more likely to drop out before getting a degree. That’s even when compared to first-generation college students or students from families with similar incomes.

At the University of Houston, about 60 to 100 kids identify as foster children each year. A little over 35 percent of those kids graduate in four years. The goal is to increase that portion to 60 percent in the next four years with help from the Diamonds. Long term, the university hopes to get that number up to 80 percent.

Advocates for foster youth say money definitely helps when it comes to getting kids through school, but only to a certain point. Kids need the emotional support and guidance of a caring adult, advocates say.

To that end, it’s fitting that the gift from the Diamonds will back more than academic and financial assistance. The Diamond Family Scholars, as they’re being called, will have access to advising, mentorship and the option to live with other kids who have been through the system.

Texas offers tuition waivers and some financial assistance to students who have spent time in the foster system. However, the Diamond gift will also cover the costs of room and board, books and other supplies—expenses often overlooked by scholarships and financial aid.

In addition to financial hardship, many kids leaving the foster system lack the social and emotional support they need to navigate college.

“Basically, they have a lack of family support,” said Raven Jones, the director of the school’s Urban Experience Program, which will oversee the Diamond Family Scholars program, as the group is being called.

Obviously, not all kids in the foster system have the same experience, Jones said. Some kids may be totally on their own, some live with extended family or may still have contact with their birth families. Some may continue living with their foster family even after aging out of the system. Few have other family members with a college degree, which can make navigating the system a challenge. It’s similar to the challenges faced by first-generation college students, another group the Urban Experience Program works with, she said.

The Diamonds join a small but growing number of funders focused on supporting some of the country’s most vulnerable kids.

Like the Diamonds’ recent gift, a lot of this work focuses on kids who are aging out of the foster system. These youth face several challenges. In addition to the third with mental health disorders, fewer than half find jobs within the first one to 1.5 years after leaving the system. More than a quarter end up incarcerated within the first two years of aging out. A third will seek public assistance.

To answer those challenges, several foundations back work to ease the transition from foster care into adult life. Blue Meridian Partners, a funder collaborative backed by the Ballmer Group and several other foundations, supports Youth Villages, a nonprofit that supports kids aging out of the foster system. The nonprofit pairs trained specialists with foster kids for six-month to year-long programs designed to give kids the skills they need to live independently.

The collaborative also backs a nonprofit that recruits families to adopt hard-to-place kids, a group that includes children over age nine, and kids with behavioral issues and siblings.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is another funder that has invested big in improving the foster care system. The first phase of the funder’s foster youth strategy wrapped up in 2017, with a total $53.5 million devoted to the work from 2012 to 2017. The funder’s work prioritized strengthening the systems and policies in place for transition-age foster kids and expanding innovative programs that serve the group. The foundation also supports expanding the knowledge of the field.

Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker are formidable champions of the field. The couple has backed a lot of work in and around Los Angeles. Their work comes with a heavy emphasis on public-private partnerships with the hope that philanthropy can fill gaps identified by the government. Earlier this year, the couple put up $10 million to start the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families, which will focus on child welfare. The couple is also involved in a 13-funder partnership with Los Angeles County.

Though the Diamonds’ gift comes with a big price tag, it’s less ambitious when it comes to engaging in system-level change than some of the other projects listed here. It’s also unusual in its geographic focus. A lot of the funding flows to California and New York, the two states with the most kids in foster care.

The couple has flown under the radar in terms of their giving. Andy Diamond made his money as president and CEO of Metals Supply Company, a steel service center sold to Platinum Equity in 2006. Andrea Diamond grew up in Houston and practiced law in the city. We don’t know much about their philanthropy outside of this gift. It seems that Texas foster youth have found a valuable ally in the couple.