Michael McKernan said his YVLifeSet specialist, William Childress, pushed him toward a brighter future. (Photo provided by YVLifeSet)

Michael McKernan’s heart pounded as he approached the community college in Gallatin, Tenn. and the exam that would decide his future. He had recently turned 18, which aged him out of foster care.

McKernan, a lanky jokester who speaks with a Southern twang, had dropped out of high school and needed to test for the GED that day or risk losing a shot at state-funded scholarships for college. He knew he couldn’t afford tuition as an overnight stocker at Walmart.

It was December 11, the last opportunity that year to take the test in his county. He’d nervously put it off, staying up late with thick practice books and Monster energy drinks. He wanted to go farther than the parents who abandoned him.

His father was in prison. His mother met a man, he says, and left him with his step-father. His step-father lost his job, got evicted and crashed on a friend’s couch. And his aunt, his third temporary guardian in three years, ran off with her boyfriend. His younger siblings -- 7, 9, and 13 -- landed in a separate foster home.

Life turned around when McKernan met William Childress, 36, a specialist who guides former foster kids transitioning to adulthood. Childress asked if he’d like to join YVLifeSet, a program in Tennessee and six other states for young adults who outgrow foster custody.

McKernan, who by then lived with his grandmother, gladly accepted. Maybe this man, a former Peace Corps volunteer in China, could help him make a resume on Microsoft Word.

Childress nudged him like a father, sending friendly text messages like: How’s your day going? He encouraged McKernan to strive beyond the first job available to a kid without a high school degree and a driver’s license.

Now, pushing through the community college doors, McKernan figured he’d give it a shot. But the woman at the sign-in table stared at McKernan when he gave his name. It wasn’t on the list, she said. He couldn’t take the exam today -- maybe next year?

McKernan’s body went numb. Grim thoughts flooded his head: No exam this year. No college, ever.

**

For American kids raised in foster care, one stumble can derail adulthood, said Erin Valentine, a sociologist at MDRC who studies adult outcomes for such youth. Every year, roughly 23,000 teenagers nationwide like McKernan age out of the system. National data shows they face much tougher odds than their peers in the general population.

Former foster kids are about twice as likely to tangle with the law: Up to 40 percent of men and 10 percent of women who grew up in foster care will be arrested, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin. They also have more trouble finding stable shelter: A University of Chicago study found 36 percent of former foster kids at age 26 reported experiencing homelessness.

They often receive much less education and make much less money. Twenty percent of former foster kids lacked a high school diploma or equivalent certificate, compared with just 6 percent of young adults, researchers at the University of Chicago found. And the median annual income for former foster kids is a mere $9,000 per year, the University of Chicago study found, compared with roughly $27,000 for their counterparts who grew up outside the system.

“They turn 18 and suddenly, technically they’re adults,” said Valentine, who co-authored a new study on early adulthood outcomes after foster care, published Tuesday. “They try hard. But when you have limited support, even the smallest slip-up can throw everything off track.”

She wanted to understand: What happens to young adults who receive additional, personally tailored support?

From 2010 to 2012, Valentine’s team of researchers followed 1,322 young adults in Tennessee, ages 18 to 24, who had recently aged out of foster care or the juvenile custody system. About 790 entered a state program called  YVLifeSet, which is run by the national non-profit Youth Villages. The rest, dubbed the control group, did not.

The YVLifeSet group received weekly counseling from a case manager for up to nine months. They went over how to make a resume, apply for a job, nail an interview and snag scholarships for college. They talked about forming healthy relationships and avoiding drugs. They wrote down a list of short-term goals to achieve: GED, driver’s license, one month’s sobriety. They sent texts like: Did you remember to fill out your FAFSA form?

In other words, Valentine said: The case managers act like stand-in parents.

Researchers interviewed the young adults after a year of receiving the extra attention. They discovered those in YVLifeSet were 22 percent less likely to be homeless and 19 percent less likely to have couch-surfed than peers in the control group. Young adults in the program group also saw higher part-time annual earnings than those in the control group: $4,099 compared to the control group’s $3,488.

“These kids are in no way prepared to walk out onto the street at 18 years old,” said Jim Henry, the commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Child Services, which works with YVLifeSet. “We help them become a productive citizen and go out and find a job. I don’t know how it could be a better investment for the state.”

The initial costs run high: Keeping one young person in care in Illinois beyond his or her 18th birthday, for example, would cost on average about $20,800 per year, a University of Chicago Study found -- but the authors argue removing support from the same young adult at age 18 could wind up costing the state double.

Enrolling a young adult in YVLifeSet costs about $10,000, which is funded by the state as well as donors, said Richard Shaw, Chief Development Officer at Youth Villages. “But consider the cost of incarceration, the cost of social welfare programs that could build over a lifetime, the lack of educational attainment which leads to decreased earnings,” Shaw said. “To set these kids on a path to success -- that’s a pretty compelling ROI [return on investment] we have.”

**

After McKernan left the exam site, he figured: That’s it. I’m done.

He did not know what happened. He could have sworn he’d signed up. Maybe he’d keep working at Wal-Mart. Maybe that’s all life had to offer him.

That December day, Childress, the foster youth specialist, happened to be in town from Nashville. He stopped by McKernan’s grandmother’s house, just to check in. He saw the gloomy look on the teenager’s face and knew something was wrong.

The story spilled from McKernan's mouth: He was ready for the test. He spent so much time studying. He had dreams for community college and then the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He didn’t get his GED on time and blew the scholarship deadline. He couldn’t possibly afford it now.

“Now wait,” Childress recalls telling him. “Let’s see what we can do.”

They called about ten people: State employees, test runners, social workers in the foster care community. They learned about an exam the following week in another county. Childress found money for the fee. And McKernan passed the exam.

He got into Volunteer State Community College. He finished his last final of the semester in early May: Ethics, his favorite class. He dreams now of studying abroad.

All it took was a simple push, he said -- someone to have his back. McKernan and Childress have their last weekly session next month. They plan to stay in contact, like many college-age sons and fathers — by texting.