Abstract Unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children have migrated to the Southern border of the United States in recent years. Yet, little is known about how these children fare after arrival, including the few who are placed in the federally sponsored Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) foster care programme. Existing research suggests that unaccompanied refugee children, unaccompanied migrant children and foster children each face significant barriers that limit their educational attainment. This study examines educational attainment for children exiting the URM programme in 2015 (n = 193). Longer stays in care are associated with higher educational attainment. Permanent legal status predicts increased high-school graduation rates, but not college enrolment. Significant variation emerged between children from the Northern Triangle region of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) compared with other countries of origin, as well as across countries within this region. These results are discussed in light of United States policies that may influence the educational attainment of unaccompanied migrant youth. Introduction Increasing numbers of children have migrated to the United States in recent years without parents or guardians. In spite of repeated calls for research on this population of unaccompanied children (Berger Cardoso et al. in press), very little is known about how these children fare as they attempt to integrate into United States culture after migration. Existing literature suggests that refugee children in the United States often experience significant educational deficits that may be exacerbated or mitigated by parental involvement and family circumstances (Graham et al. 2016). For unaccompanied migrant children, these familial factors are often absent; yet, in the context of receiving countries other than the United States, education can be a driver for greater social inclusion (Naidoo 2009) and greater service access for mental health (Fazel 2015) and special education (Uptin et al. 2013). Thus, education for unaccompanied children may serve as a protective factor by providing a higher level of mobilization across levels of social stratification (Miller and Roby 1971; Sleijpen et al. 2016). With few exceptions (Luster et al. 2009), however, the research literature has thus far been mostly silent on educational outcomes, or other mechanisms of social mobility, for unaccompanied children in the United States. The United States is also a unique context given that some children are placed in federally sponsored foster care. Using a social mobility framework, the purpose of this study is to examine educational outcomes for 193 children exiting care from the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) programme in the United States during 2015, with a focus on the unaccompanied migrant youth from the Northern Triangle compared to those from other countries of origin.1 Of particular interest is the extent to which educational attainment is related to such variables as time spent in care, legal status and country of origin. Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the United States Unaccompanied children have been migrating to the United States for many years (Roth and Grace 2015) but numbers have increased since 2011, particularly those who originate from Central America (Women’s Refugee Commission 2012). These children garnered increased attention after a surge of 67,339 arrived at the Southern border in 2014 (Chishti and Hipsman 2015)—a drastic increase from the more typical 24,668 referrals in 2013 (Administration for Children and Families (ACF) 2016). During the 2014 surge of unaccompanied migrant children, the majority of children apprehended at the United States–Mexico border originated from the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) as well as from Mexico (US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) 2016). Evidence suggests that gang-related violence, family maltreatment and human trafficking are dominant factors contributing to their forced migration, as well as the search for greater economic opportunities (UNHCR 2014). The unique needs of unaccompanied children have been studied in various contexts, including the United Kingdom (Kohli and Mather 2003; Jackson et al. 2005), Austria (Huemer et al. 2011) and Australia (Davidson et al. 2004), but research in the United States is lacking. Social Mobility of Unaccompanied Children Unaccompanied children migrating to the United States are in a particularly vulnerable and stratified social position given the multiple risk factors accumulated in their countries of origin, during their migration journeys and after their arrival (Pine and Drachman 2005; Crea et al. 2017). These children often exhibit mental health symptomatology including elevated symptoms of PTSD (Hodes et al. 2008) coupled with limited access to mental health services (Sanchez-Cao et al. 2013). Low levels of education and educational access can exacerbate these issues. Low levels of education are associated with emotional distress for refugees exposed to torture (Carlsson et al. 2006) and evidence indicates low levels of education are also associated with risk of unemployment for Vietnamese refugees resettled in Norway (Hauff 1993). Importantly, educational attainment for forced migrant children can also serve as a protective factor (Sleijpen et al. 2016) and can promote the psycho-social adjustment of refugee children (McBrien 2005). Yet, these children sometimes lack needed supports in education settings, creating barriers to educational attainment (Mendenhall et al. 2017). While the majority of unaccompanied children migrating to the United States are placed in the community with sponsors, a small number are eventually placed in the federally sponsored URM programme. Placement in this programme offers an opportunity to examine educational outcomes for children as a measure of social mobility. The URM Programme Since the late 1970s, the United States Department of State and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) have partnered with community-based agencies to admit unaccompanied, separated and refugee youth into a specialized foster care programme that serves as a bridge between refugee resettlement and the United States child welfare system (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) 2013). This subset of foster care, called the URM programme, operates in 15 states across the nation (ACF 2016). An URM is defined as a person who has not attained 18 years of age and has entered the United States unaccompanied by a parent or a close non-parental adult relative who is willing and able to care for the minor, and a minor who has legal eligibility (ORR 2013). When there is no family available to care for youth, ORR and its network of providers begin to explore legal relief for the child as a pathway to permanency. Once youth obtain legal eligibility as outlined by ORR, they may enter the URM programme (ACF 2016). Minors who are foreign-born and who have been victims of trafficking, are refugees, have asylum status, are Cuban or Haitian entrants and those with Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) are all eligible to enter the URM foster care programme. Children who are served in the URM programme thus represent a small subset of unaccompanied migrant children in the United States, and also include those who come to the United States meeting one of these criteria for eligibility. The URM programme is the only government-sponsored foster care programme in the world that offers specialized services to foreign-born unaccompanied minors by providing support services and resources with programmatic structures modelled after domestic child welfare systems. Educational supports generally include English as a Second Language (ESL) services, tutoring, college counselling, and Education and Training Vouchers (ETVs) for attending college (ORR 2015). The programme is distinct from domestic foster care—and unique among refugee services—in the recommended competencies of staff. For example, it is recommended that all agency staff and foster parents should be trained specifically to work with foreign-born youth. Training topics include international migration crises and trends, smuggling and trafficking, cultural sensitivity including cultures and traditions of common populations, strategies for addressing language barriers and the impact of trauma (USCCB 2013). Given that the majority of these youth do not have biological family in the United States, foster families often chose to stay in contact with the youth after emancipation (USCCB 2013). Like children in domestic foster care, children in the URM programme are provided the opportunity to attend school in their communities, in either mainstream public schools or, if needed, schools focused on ESL as well as academics. The existing literature on unaccompanied children in the United States—of whom URM children are largely a subset—suggests that this population has experienced significant trauma prior to and during their migration journeys (Griffin et al. 2014), which heightens their vulnerability to poor outcomes such as behavioural acting-out and placement disruption while in care (Crea et al. 2017). While they await legal adjudication, unaccompanied youth may face a lack of health care access such that significant mental health issues remain untreated (Shah 2016). Once entered into the URM programme, however, the package of supports available increases greatly. While the literature is silent on educational outcomes for children in URM foster care, children in domestic foster care are at risk of dropping out of school and are less likely than the general population to attend college (Courtney et al. 2005). The extent to which this dynamic extends to unaccompanied youth in foster care is unknown, but the added layers of complexity related to migration may pose additional risk factors. Education for Unaccompanied Children Unaccompanied children migrating to the United States are likely to have gaps in formal education related to poverty, forced migration, safety concerns and school availability in their home countries. Education in other countries is often child-centred and participatory, is often discriminatory and may not always be a positive experience (Dryden-Peterson 2015). Even for youth who have legal refugee status and who have been in school, navigating the United States educational system, understanding expectations such as waking up on time and following guidance of authority figures in school can be difficult for youth (Socha et al. 2016). In addition, unaccompanied children served through URM may not know how to behave in a classroom, or may act out due to stress or trauma (USCCB 2013). School provides an opportunity for youth to interact with peers, learn, set goals and make commitments. Kohli (2011) argues that school is an integral part of successful outcomes for asylum-seeking youth, with endurance and a sense of agency and control over one’s circumstances facilitating educational success. Evidence shows that children who immigrate to the United States at age 13 or younger generally have the same educational attainment as their native-born peers (Baum and Flores 2011). For unaccompanied children and URMs in foster care, the picture is less clear, but some of the dynamics these children experience in care and afterwards may be similar to those in United States domestic foster care. Studies of youth aging out of domestic United States foster care (who are mostly United States citizens) show that this population has lower levels of educational attainment and employment than their peers of the same age in the general population (Courtney et al. 2005). These outcomes may depend on a variety of factors, such as perceived life stress, accessibility of programmes and the strength of their social relationships (Geenen and Powers 2007). For unaccompanied and refugee youth, the scant existing literature shows that education may serve as a protective factor. In a qualitative study of 18 refugee ‘lost boys’ of Sudan served by the URM Programme, Luster and colleagues (2009) found that one of the major catalysts of successful outcomes was youths’ focus on their own educational attainment. Indeed, Bates and colleagues (2005) found this group had significantly high rates of education: 98 per cent were in school and 91 per cent expected to obtain at least a four-year college degree. Educational Attainment Despite the benefits of education for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children, this population faces considerable barriers to accessing education. These barriers include differing cultural norms and having to balance family expectations (often from their home countries) with pursuing educational opportunities (Anselme and Hands 2010; Shakya et al. 2010). In addition, research suggests peer conflict is a potential barrier for refugee children’s access to education (Şeker and Sirkeci 2015). Some evidence suggests gaps in education resulting from forced migration, and the limited language capabilities that stem from it, create further barriers for unaccompanied children to access secondary education (Brown et al. 2006; Cranitch 2010). Conversely, a number of factors may help explain success in secondary school for refugee children. Greater acculturation (Trickett and Birman 2005) and motivation to succeed (Shakya et al. 2010) are positively correlated with academic success and school completion. On the other hand, Correa-Velez and colleagues (2016) found that older age on arrival and higher perceived levels of discrimination were negatively correlated with school completion and were significant predictors of failing to complete secondary school. Naidoo (2009) found that secondary education settings can promote positive social inclusion of unaccompanied children, and school attendance can facilitate access to mental health services (Fazel 2015) and psycho-social support (Pastoor 2015). Schools as social settings can embody a supportive and inclusive environment for unaccompanied children to access education services more effectively (Uptin et al. 2013). Higher or tertiary education in the United States may serve as a gateway to future economic opportunities, but little is known about how unaccompanied migrant or refugee youth can access post-secondary education. According to Baum and Flores (2011), immigrants often struggle to attend higher education for a variety of reasons, including the status of being labelled an immigrant, legal barriers, socio-economic status and parental educational attainment. Post-secondary educational attainment varies greatly by country of origin: Hispanic persons aged 25–34 were the lowest attaining compared to black, Asian and white persons (Baum and Flores 2011). For those who make it to university, resiliency and resourcefulness are key skills. Jackson et al. 2005 found that asylum-seeking youth who reach the university level often perform better than native-born youth due to their desire for stability and accomplishment, and the fear of repatriation. In a study of adult refugees in higher education, Crea (2016) suggests access to tertiary education for refugees can promote empowerment and enhance dignity and self-worth, and may additionally serve to improve psycho-social outcomes. While there are limited, but important, contributions to understanding factors that predict educational attainment for unaccompanied children, there is very limited knowledge of the experiences of unaccompanied migrant or refugee youth as they interact with the United States education system. A sizable body of research highlights the association between the myriad barriers unaccompanied children face education access, but research on unaccompanied migrant youth from Central America is at a nascent stage. Given that these children comprise the majority of those recently arriving in the United States (CBP 2016) and of those in the URM programme, the current article aims to provide much-needed knowledge on the unique needs of this vulnerable population. Specifically, this article explores predictors for multiple levels of education—primary, secondary and tertiary—for unaccompanied children placed in the URM programme in the United States. This study is guided by the following research questions: To what extent is time spent in the URM programme associated with educational attainment for unaccompanied migrant youth? What is the influence of legal status on educational attainment for unaccompanied migrant youth served through the URM programme? What differences emerge across countries of origin in educational attainment, particularly between children from the Northern Triangle of Central America compared with other countries of origin? Methods Sample The sample includes youth placed in foster care, group care and semi-independent living group homes under the ORR-funded URM programme. ORR contracts with a number of private organizations to subcontract these living arrangements with community-based agencies. The data for the current study were obtained by one of the larger contractors with the United States Government, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS); these data represents all children who were discharged from the LIRS URM programme in 2015. Of the 193 children (see Table 1), 150 were boys (77.7 per cent) and 124 (64.1 per cent) had legal permanency (Green Card, n = 121 (62.7 per cent); or United States Citizen, n = 3 (1.6 per cent)). The average age at admission was 16.9 years old (SD = 1.90) and time spent in care averaged 35.3 months (SD = 22.3), just under three years. Table 1 Differences in Educational Attainment Total (n = 193) % or M(SD) Enrolled K12 (n = 116) % or M(SD) HS degree (n = 33) % or M(SD) Enrolled college (n = 38) % or M(SD) Other (n = 5) % or M(SD) Gender (1 = male) 77.7 56.4 19.5 20.8 3.4 Immigration status (1 = Legal permanency)** 64.1 51.2 23.6 22.0 3.4 Country of origin El Salvador 7.3 50.0 35.7 14.3 0.0 Guatemala** 17.6 90.9 0.0 9.1 0.0 Honduras* 28.0 75.9 14.8 5.6 3.7 Other*** 47.2 36.1 25.0 37.5 1.4 Months in care*** 35.3 (22.3) 23.9 (13.1) 50.7 (22.8) 55.4 (21.3) 53.0 (18.6) Age at admission 16.9 (1.9) 17.2 (1.3) 15.8 (3.3) 16.6 (1.6) 17.6 (0.9) Total (n = 193) % or M(SD) Enrolled K12 (n = 116) % or M(SD) HS degree (n = 33) % or M(SD) Enrolled college (n = 38) % or M(SD) Other (n = 5) % or M(SD) Gender (1 = male) 77.7 56.4 19.5 20.8 3.4 Immigration status (1 = Legal permanency)** 64.1 51.2 23.6 22.0 3.4 Country of origin El Salvador 7.3 50.0 35.7 14.3 0.0 Guatemala** 17.6 90.9 0.0 9.1 0.0 Honduras* 28.0 75.9 14.8 5.6 3.7 Other*** 47.2 36.1 25.0 37.5 1.4 Months in care*** 35.3 (22.3) 23.9 (13.1) 50.7 (22.8) 55.4 (21.3) 53.0 (18.6) Age at admission 16.9 (1.9) 17.2 (1.3) 15.8 (3.3) 16.6 (1.6) 17.6 (0.9) *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001. Table 1 Differences in Educational Attainment Total (n = 193) % or M(SD) Enrolled K12 (n = 116) % or M(SD) HS degree (n = 33) % or M(SD) Enrolled college (n = 38) % or M(SD) Other (n = 5) % or M(SD) Gender (1 = male) 77.7 56.4 19.5 20.8 3.4 Immigration status (1 = Legal permanency)** 64.1 51.2 23.6 22.0 3.4 Country of origin El Salvador 7.3 50.0 35.7 14.3 0.0 Guatemala** 17.6 90.9 0.0 9.1 0.0 Honduras* 28.0 75.9 14.8 5.6 3.7 Other*** 47.2 36.1 25.0 37.5 1.4 Months in care*** 35.3 (22.3) 23.9 (13.1) 50.7 (22.8) 55.4 (21.3) 53.0 (18.6) Age at admission 16.9 (1.9) 17.2 (1.3) 15.8 (3.3) 16.6 (1.6) 17.6 (0.9) Total (n = 193) % or M(SD) Enrolled K12 (n = 116) % or M(SD) HS degree (n = 33) % or M(SD) Enrolled college (n = 38) % or M(SD) Other (n = 5) % or M(SD) Gender (1 = male) 77.7 56.4 19.5 20.8 3.4 Immigration status (1 = Legal permanency)** 64.1 51.2 23.6 22.0 3.4 Country of origin El Salvador 7.3 50.0 35.7 14.3 0.0 Guatemala** 17.6 90.9 0.0 9.1 0.0 Honduras* 28.0 75.9 14.8 5.6 3.7 Other*** 47.2 36.1 25.0 37.5 1.4 Months in care*** 35.3 (22.3) 23.9 (13.1) 50.7 (22.8) 55.4 (21.3) 53.0 (18.6) Age at admission 16.9 (1.9) 17.2 (1.3) 15.8 (3.3) 16.6 (1.6) 17.6 (0.9) *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001. Over half of the children (52.9 per cent) were from the Northern Triangle of Central America, including 14 (7.3 per cent) from El Salvador, 54 (28.0 per cent) from Honduras and 34 (17.6 per cent) from Guatemala (see Table 1). The remaining countries of origin are as follows (not displayed): 18 from Mexico (9.3 per cent), 16 (8.3 per cent) from Burma/Myanmar, 12 (10.9 per cent) from the Democratic Republic of Congo, eight (4.2 per cent) from Somalia, five (2.6 per cent) from Eritrea, three (1.6 per cent) from Nepal; two children each (1.0 per cent) from the respective countries of Afghanistan, Ghana, India, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Tanzania; and one child each (0.5 per cent) from each of the following countries: Belize, China, Congo, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Pakistan, Rwanda and Thailand. Measures All variables used in the analysis are indicators collected by LIRS partner agencies to obtain information about the wellbeing of children served by the URM programme. Three dichotomous dependent variables are used in the analysis, each of which measures the educational status of the youth upon discharge from the URM programme (these are mutually exclusive): enrolment in a K-12 setting (yes/no); obtaining a high-school diploma (yes/no); or enrolment in college (yes/no). Independent measures used in the analysis are the following: length of stay in the URM programme (months in care, from intake to discharge); gender (male = 1); age at admission to the URM programme (in years); legal permanency (holding a Green Card or being a United States citizen (=1) which establishes the holder as a lawful permanent resident in the United States, versus other statuses (asylee, I-360, Ordered Removed, Refugee, SIJS, or Victim of Human Trafficking; = 0)); country of origin dichotomous indicators for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Other (including Afghanistan, Belize, Burma, China, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, India, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Thailand). The rationale for clustering other countries of the world into one indicator is to provide a basis of comparison for the large number of children migrating from the Northern Triangle of Central America, given the recent surges of migration from this region. Analysis Independent samples t-tests and chi-square analyses were conducted to examine bivariate relationships between dependent variables and each of the independent variables. Three logistic regression models were employed to examine the associations between months in care, age at admission, gender, immigration status and country of origin, and the log likelihood of each of the three dependent variables (enrolled in K-12 education setting at discharge, having a high-school diploma at discharge and enrolled in college at discharge). Results Results from bivariate analyses are displayed in Table 1. No statistically significant differences emerged between gender and educational status. Mean age at admission to care overall was 16.9 years (SD = 1.9) and did not differ to a statistically significant degree across educational categories. Children with legal permanency (Green Card or United States Citizen) were more likely to be enrolled in K-12 at discharge (51.2 per cent), compared with 23.6 per cent having a high-school diploma and 22.0 per cent being enrolled in college (p < 0.01). Compared to other countries of origin, children from Guatemala were more likely to be enrolled in K-12, with 90.9 per cent enrolled in K-12 at discharge, none exiting with high-school diplomas and 9.1 per cent enrolled in college (p < 0.01). Similarly, over three-quarters of children from Honduras, compared to other countries, were enrolled in K-12, 14.8 per cent had a high-school diploma and only 5.6 per cent were enrolled in college (p < 0.05). Compared to other countries of origin, children from El Salvador were not statistically significantly different from others in educational attainment. Children from other countries of origin were more evenly split than those from the Northern Triangle, with about a third of children in each educational category (p < 0.001). Higher lengths of stay in care were associated with higher levels of educational attainment (p < 0.001)—youth whose highest attainment was enrolment in K-12 were in care on average just under two years (23.9 months, SD = 13.1), while those with a high-school diploma stayed in care for 50.7 months (SD = 22.8) and those enrolled in college stayed in care for 55.4 months (SD = 21.3). Results of the three logistic regression models are presented in Table 2. Model 1 estimates the log likelihood of exiting foster care while enrolled in K-12. Each month in care is associated with a 12.0 per cent decrease in the likelihood of discharge from care at K-12 (OR = 0.88, CI = 0.84– 0.91, p < 0.001). Each additional year in age at admission to the URM foster care programme is associated with a 27.0 per cent decrease in the likelihood of discharge from care at K-12 (OR = 0.73, CI = 0.58–0.91, p < 0.01). Boys were 85.0 per cent less likely to be discharged from care at K-12 (OR = 0.15, CI = 0.04–0.49, p < 0.01). Children from Guatemala were over eight times more likely to be discharged from care while in K-12 compared to those from other countries of origin (OR = 8.33, CI = 1.69–40.99, p < 0.01). Legal permanency and the other countries of origin were not statistically significant predictors of K-12 education. Table 2 Educational Outcomes for Children at Discharge from URM Programme Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 K12 enrolled HS diploma Enrolled in college OR (CI) OR (CI) OR (CI) Months in care 0.88*** (0.84–0.91) 1.03* (1.00–1.05) 1.10*** (1.06–1.14) Age at admission 0.73** (0.58–0.91) 0.89 (0.69–1.14) 2.32** (1.39–3.88) Gender (male) 0.15** (0.04– 0.49) 3.00 (0.82–11.04) 1.77 (0.58–5.35) Legal permanency 0.49 (0.19–1.27) 3.59* (1.12–11.57) 0.52 (0.20–1.40) Country of origin El Salvador 0.23 (0.05–1.15) 4.92* (1.19–20.39) 0.73 (0.97–5.49) Guatemala 8.33** (1.69–40.99) – 0.35 (0.08–1.49) Honduras 1.56 (0.52–4.68) 1.38 (0.45–4.23) 0.24* (0.06–0.94) Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 K12 enrolled HS diploma Enrolled in college OR (CI) OR (CI) OR (CI) Months in care 0.88*** (0.84–0.91) 1.03* (1.00–1.05) 1.10*** (1.06–1.14) Age at admission 0.73** (0.58–0.91) 0.89 (0.69–1.14) 2.32** (1.39–3.88) Gender (male) 0.15** (0.04– 0.49) 3.00 (0.82–11.04) 1.77 (0.58–5.35) Legal permanency 0.49 (0.19–1.27) 3.59* (1.12–11.57) 0.52 (0.20–1.40) Country of origin El Salvador 0.23 (0.05–1.15) 4.92* (1.19–20.39) 0.73 (0.97–5.49) Guatemala 8.33** (1.69–40.99) – 0.35 (0.08–1.49) Honduras 1.56 (0.52–4.68) 1.38 (0.45–4.23) 0.24* (0.06–0.94) * p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001. Table 2 Educational Outcomes for Children at Discharge from URM Programme Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 K12 enrolled HS diploma Enrolled in college OR (CI) OR (CI) OR (CI) Months in care 0.88*** (0.84–0.91) 1.03* (1.00–1.05) 1.10*** (1.06–1.14) Age at admission 0.73** (0.58–0.91) 0.89 (0.69–1.14) 2.32** (1.39–3.88) Gender (male) 0.15** (0.04– 0.49) 3.00 (0.82–11.04) 1.77 (0.58–5.35) Legal permanency 0.49 (0.19–1.27) 3.59* (1.12–11.57) 0.52 (0.20–1.40) Country of origin El Salvador 0.23 (0.05–1.15) 4.92* (1.19–20.39) 0.73 (0.97–5.49) Guatemala 8.33** (1.69–40.99) – 0.35 (0.08–1.49) Honduras 1.56 (0.52–4.68) 1.38 (0.45–4.23) 0.24* (0.06–0.94) Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 K12 enrolled HS diploma Enrolled in college OR (CI) OR (CI) OR (CI) Months in care 0.88*** (0.84–0.91) 1.03* (1.00–1.05) 1.10*** (1.06–1.14) Age at admission 0.73** (0.58–0.91) 0.89 (0.69–1.14) 2.32** (1.39–3.88) Gender (male) 0.15** (0.04– 0.49) 3.00 (0.82–11.04) 1.77 (0.58–5.35) Legal permanency 0.49 (0.19–1.27) 3.59* (1.12–11.57) 0.52 (0.20–1.40) Country of origin El Salvador 0.23 (0.05–1.15) 4.92* (1.19–20.39) 0.73 (0.97–5.49) Guatemala 8.33** (1.69–40.99) – 0.35 (0.08–1.49) Honduras 1.56 (0.52–4.68) 1.38 (0.45–4.23) 0.24* (0.06–0.94) * p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001. Model 2 estimates the log likelihood of exiting care with a high-school diploma. Every month in care is associated with a 3 per cent greater likelihood of having a high-school diploma (OR = 1.03, CI = 1.00–1.05, p < 0.05). Those with legal permanency are over three times more likely to leave care with a diploma than those without legal permanency (OR = 3.59, CI = 1.12–11.57, p < 0.05) and those from El Salvador were nearly five times as likely to have a diploma compared with other countries of origin (OR = 4.92, CI = 1.19–20.39, p < 0.05). Gender, age at admission and the other countries of origin were not statistically significant predictors of attaining a high-school diploma. Model 3 estimates the log likelihood of exiting care while enrolled in college. With each month in care, the log likelihood of enrolment in college increases by 10.0 per cent (OR = 1.10, CI = 1.06–1.14, p < 0.001). Each additional year in age at admission is associated with being over two times as likely to be discharged from care while enrolled in college (OR = 2.32, CI = 1.39–3.88, p < 0.01). Those from Honduras are 76.0 per cent less likely to be discharged from care while enrolled in college compared to other countries of origin (OR = 0.24, CI = 0.06–0.94, p < 0.05). Gender, legal permanency and the other countries of origin were not statistically significant predictors of college enrolment. Discussion The purpose of this study was to examine explanatory factors of educational achievement among unaccompanied migrant youth living in the URM foster care programme. Results of both bivariate and multivariate analyses showed that greater length of time spent in the URM programme is associated with higher educational attainment—such that, for every month the youth remained in care, the likelihood of enrolling in college increased by 10 per cent. One explanation of this dynamic is simply that youth enrolled in the URM programme for longer periods of time are also generally in the United States for a longer period of time. While no data were available related to the length of time in the United States, it is assumed to be different from, and longer than, the length of stay in the URM programme—after being detained, children must first be screened for familial placements and then matched with legal representation, and must achieve legal eligibility before entering the URM programme. Therefore, these children have more time to learn English, adjust to United States school systems and to attend school on a regular basis. Migrant youth often come to the United States with little, or interrupted, formal education (USCCB 2013), so greater length of time in care will allow greater adjustment to the educational environment. An alternative explanation may be that, for these children, the foster care system plays an important role in their adjustment to the United States, and therefore their educational attainment and social mobility. While no other comparable research is available to contextualize these findings, this dynamic is similar to that experienced by older youth in domestic foster care in the United States, who choose to remain in care after age 18 through the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP). Previous research has shown that domestic youth who have aged out of foster care are at much greater risk of low educational attainment and dropping out of college (Courtney et al. 2011; Day et al. 2011). Conversely, other research demonstrates that older youth who remained in foster care were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in school as those who left care, and more than three times as likely to be enrolled in college if they also had high-school diplomas or equivalencies (Courtney et al. 2005). Thus, staying in care seems to serve a protective role in promoting education, likely through the structure and services in place that allow youth the freedom to focus on studies. Importantly, in the current study, these dynamics also seem to extend to unaccompanied youth as longer stays in care promote greater educational attainment and, by proxy, greater social mobility. Contrary to expectations, however, legal permanency had a weaker relationship with educational attainment. Over half of those with permanent legal status (Green Card or United States Citizenship) exited care enrolled in high school without having graduated. Yet, legal permanency predicted a higher likelihood of having a high-school diploma, such that permanent legal status seems to help youth complete high school. This finding somewhat supports Kohli’s (2011) belief that having a stable immigration status would allow youth to focus more effectively on school and achieve more. Yet, this relationship does not seem to extend to enrolment in college. This curious pattern may be explained by the finding that older age at admission to foster care is associated with higher rates of college enrolment. In this case, the benefits of achieving legal permanency are outweighed by the proximity to which youth are college-aged. Significant variability in educational attainment emerged based on children’s countries of origin. Youth from Guatemala were much more likely to be enrolled in K-12 at exit from care (90.9 per cent), much less likely to be enrolled in college (9.0 per cent) and no children from Guatemala were discharged with a high-school diploma. One implication of this finding is that children from the Northern Triangle of Central America are anything but culturally monolithic. Many youth from Guatemala arrive in the United States only speaking an indigenous language, and often learn Spanish later at ORR shelters in order to attend school and interact with peers. When these youth enter mainstream community schools, they are likely to be learning another new language (English) in a short period of time, which may introduce additional complications and educational setbacks. Existing research suggests that youth for whom English is a second or third language struggle to understand teachers and read received material (Myburgh et al. 2004). While children from Honduras and El Salvador also exited care while in K-12 in high numbers (75.9 per cent and 50.0 per cent, respectively), most of these children likely already spoke Spanish upon arrival. Thus, while many of these children probably needed to learn English, their abilities in Spanish helped them navigate the school environment more effectively and achieve greater educational attainment. Limitations This study has limitations. Although the dataset contains all cases of children who discharged from the LIRS URM programme in 2015, the data are cross-sectional so that fluctuations over time cannot be detected. As a result, this study is unable to determine whether youth who were enrolled at the time of discharge remained enrolled and actually graduated and/or moved on to higher education. Data were not available regarding children’s linguistic or cultural backgrounds, or other factors that may explain educational success, such as the level of educational attainment prior to migration that tends to differ greatly by country of origin. As with all administrative data, the data for this study are of unknown reliability and validity. There was no variable of the length of time living in the United States. The needs of URM youth may also differ from the larger population of unaccompanied children who do not have formal supports available. Also, in contrast to children in the URM programme, unaccompanied children may have greater informal support from family, as well as the challenges involved with family reunification (Roth and Grace 2015). Given these differences, the extent to which the current study’s findings can be extrapolated to the larger population of unaccompanied children may be limited. Future studies could be strengthened by directly interviewing youth about their perspectives on educational attainment. Conclusion and Implications This study provides a first empirical glimpse of educational outcomes for unaccompanied migrant children served by URM foster care in the United States. For this sample of children, more time spent in foster care was associated with improved educational outcomes. This relationship proved to be more consistently positive than legal permanency, which also proved to be a protective factor for educational attainment. Yet, outcomes differed widely by country of origin, and even across countries in the Northern Triangle region of Central America. The results of this study suggest that the needs of unaccompanied migrant children served by the URM foster care programme vary based on their backgrounds and culture—differences that professionals and policy makers must take into account in advocating for educational access and programming. The issue of educational attainment for unaccompanied children deserves more attention in research, policy and practice. While these youth are legally eligible and mandated to attend school, many struggle to enrol in public education because of lack of proper documentation or the school’s desire for youth to attend alternative schools, often for fear of negatively affecting the school’s graduation rates and testing scores (Booi et al. 2016). Lack of school enrolment contributes to an even larger education gap; education gaps must also be examined to develop appropriate interventions and best practices. Additionally, some policies create insurmountable financial barriers to youth affording, and attending, higher education. For example, youth with a federal I-360 permit are not eligible for federal student aid funds (Federal Student Aid n.d.). 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Journal of Refugee Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 29, 2017
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