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IES Grant

Title: Multi-Site Randomized Controlled Trial of Better Futures Postsecondary Access Intervention for Youth in Foster Care
Center: NCER Year: 2022
Principal Investigator: Salazar, Amy Awardee: Washington State University
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 5 years (09/01/2022 – 08/31/2027) Award Amount: $3,800,000
Type: Initial Efficacy Award Number: R305A220123

Co-Principal Investigator: Blakeslee, Jennifer

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to assess the efficacy of the Better Futures program for increasing the postsecondary attainment of older youth in foster care (approximate ages 16-20) through a multi-site randomized controlled trial (RCT). Youth with foster care experience are a highly diverse, highly vulnerable population that face daunting challenges in relation to accessing and being successful in postsecondary education. The Better Futures postsecondary access intervention for youth in foster care was developed to address the specific challenges faced by this population. Better Futures seeks to provide comprehensive programming designed specifically for foster youth because programs that are not foster youth-focused are often unable to (a) navigate the complex child welfare policies impacting these youth, and (b) handle the level and breadth of support these students need, including longer-term, intensive, relationship-based supports like those typically provided by parents. If found to be effective, the program will be one of very few evidence-based practices for improving postsecondary outcomes for youth with foster care experience.

Project Activities: The project team will work with child welfare agencies in 4 states to recruit students for participation in the RC. The team will recruit 4 cohorts over four academic years: 2023-24, 2024-25, 2025-26, and 2026-27. Research teams in the 4 states will coordinate implementation of annual summer college-awareness institutes followed by individualized coaching during the following academic year. Researchers at Portland State University will hold annual training meetings for the coaches and will work with the state-based teams to refine coaching strategies when needed. The research team will collect implementation data from site university partners, survey data from students, and postsecondary attainment data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Products: Researchers will generate evidence on the efficacy of the Better Futures intervention for improving postsecondary access for youth with foster care experience. Through reports and briefs, they will convey their findings to policy and practitioner audiences. They will produce a comprehensive impact report and submit it to a peer-reviewed publication.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This project will be implemented in four states: Oregon, Texas, California, and Illinois. The implementation sites within each state are metro areas with urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Sample: The target population for this study is older youth who are either in foster care or who have recently aged out but are still under age 21. Eligibility criteria include (a) either being in the foster care system or having aged out of the foster care system and still under age 21 at recruitment, (b) having completed junior year or beyond of high school, including enrollment in or completion of a high school equivalency credential (GED), (c) not yet enrolled in postsecondary education, and (d) having not ruled out enrolling in a postsecondary program. Researchers will recruit a total of 810 youth into the project: 270 in the Better Futures intervention condition, and 540 in the control group. Three of four study sites will recruit 4 cohorts and 1 study site will implement three cohorts, for a total of 15 study site cohorts. Each study site cohort will contain 54 youth: 18 randomized into the intervention condition, and 36 randomized into the services-as-usual control condition. Based on assumptions about likely postsecondary matriculation, the unbalanced initial sample will yield a balanced sample of approximately 340 students who will enroll in postsecondary education: 170 each from the intervention and control conditions.

Intervention: The Better Futures model is delivered over approximately 10 months starting in summer, after youth have completed their junior year of high school but before they have enrolled in a postsecondary program. Better Futures consists of three core intervention components: (1) A three-day, two-night summer institute held at a university campus; (2) individual coaching sessions twice a month focusing on self-determination skills and postsecondary preparation experiences; and (3) workshops led by "near-peer" college students with lived experience in foster care. The intervention commences with 1-2 introductory coaching meetings which orient youth to the program and help them begin to identify their strengths and generate initial ideas for postsecondary education. Youth then attend the Summer Institute where they learn about a wide range of postsecondary education options and further explore their personal interests. Over the course of the subsequent academic year, coaches work with youth to build on their initial goals and establish more specific steps and timelines, and youth attend five skill-building workshops about relevant postsecondary topics.

Research Design and Methods: Researchers will conduct a multi-site (N = 4), multi-cohort (N = 15) RCT with two study conditions: intervention (those who receive the Better Futures intervention) and control (services as usual). Randomization will occur at the student level within each study site. Each study site will be based at a university, which will provide the Better Futures intervention. The design will support a causal intent-to-treat evaluation as well as exploratory analysis of for whom and through which mechanisms the intervention appears to be effective. Researchers will measure the treatment contrast by asking participants to report other postsecondary support services in which they participate. The RCT will be accompanied by a process evaluation to assess fidelity to the Better Futures model and other implementation outcomes, a cost evaluation, and a cost-effectiveness evaluation.

Control Condition: Participants in the services-as-usual control condition will not receive any of the Better Futures intervention components. They will participate in the student outcome surveys, and researchers will track their postsecondary progress.

Key Measures: Researchers will construct measures of postsecondary attainment including persistence, progression, and degree completion from administrative data provided by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). Measures of proximal youth outcomes identified in the theory of change such as postsecondary preparation, self-determination, and perceived barriers to postsecondary education will be constructed from items administered in the youth outcome survey which will take place at baseline, post-intervention, and at multiple follow-up time points. For the process evaluation, researchers will construct measures of implementation fidelity, participant responsiveness, and quality of delivery from instruments filled out by project staff and study participants. Cost monitoring data to assess the cost of implementing the Better Futures model will be collected via instruments filled out by project staff.

Data Analytic Strategy: The outcome evaluation will include both quantitative and qualitative components. Quantitative researchers will employ a multilevel model with site-level random effects to assess the relationship between the intervention and students' postsecondary academic outcomes. Hedge's g effect sizes will be calculated for all continuous outcomes, and percent changes (e.g., enrollment outcomes) will be calculated for binary outcomes. They will also conduct a mediation analysis by using path analysis to assess the mediating effects of hypothesized proximal outcomes and subgroup analyses to assess how intervention impacts vary by gender and race. Qualitative researchers will analyze youth interview data using an inductive thematic content analysis approach to assess what the Better Futures experience was like for students and how the identified themes align with the theory of change for the intervention. For the implementation analysis, researchers will conduct a qualitative content analysis of open-ended response data collected from program staff, and descriptive analysis of quantitative process data including participation rates and frequencies of interventionist responses.

Cost Analysis: The cost analysis will utilize an ingredients-based approach to delineate all necessary program inputs, measure their use, and value those inputs/ingredients through use of a series of cost tracking logs. Cost analysts will use the CostOut CBSE Cost Tool Kit to guide their tracking and estimating of overall costs. The cost analysis will involve (a) determining the estimated per-person costs of the program, including valuation of inputs not reflected in budgets; (b) determining likely anticipated variation of costs across sites; (c) conducting sensitivity analyses to understand how likely variation in program input costs could lead to different total costs; and (d) developing user-friendly cost summaries that can help organizations decide whether Better Futures may be an affordable option for them. The cost-effectiveness analysis will estimate incremental cost-effectiveness ratios (ICERs) for the primary outcomes of the study, by comparing the costs of the Better Futures program to the costs of services as usual and then comparing ICERs to assess the degree to which Better Futures is more or less cost effective (relative to services as usual) across key study outcomes.