Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Beyond Personal Solutions: Strengthening Social Institutions
As the transition to adulthood evolves, so too must society's institutions. As young people and their families struggle with the new reality of a longer and more demanding pathway into adult life, existing institutions may need to change and new ones may have to be developed. Which institutions are most important to a successful transition, which will reach the largest share of young adults in meaningful ways, and which are most open to intervention and reform? We highlight three institutions: community colleges, service learning programs, and the military.
Community colleges are an ideal target for intervention. These two-year colleges touch large numbers and a wide variety of young people, serve many purposes, are flexible, and offer connections to a range of potential career paths. Yet they are seriously in need of support and reform if they are to meet the needs of youth in transition to adulthood. Four-year residential colleges and universities, by contrast, provide a perfect example of how a social institution can successfully address the needs of young adults—by providing shelter, directed activities, adult and peer support, health care, and entertainment. Explicitly designed as a bridge between a student's family and the wider society, four-year colleges have increasingly been tailored to provide the sort of semi-autonomy that characterizes early adulthood. In his article on community colleges in this issue, Thomas Brock notes the irony that the most selective institutions of higher education take the most capable students and wrap them in support, while community colleges are the least selective institutions and provide the least support.
Community colleges, however, can be restructured to provide these same kinds of services. The Obama administration has already recognized the important role that community colleges can play in strengthening the skills and opportunities of youth who do not or cannot go on to four-year colleges. It has proposed $12 billion in additional funding, with the goal of graduating 5 million more community college students by 2020. It also aims to forge tighter links between community colleges and employers.
The second institution, service learning programs in schools and workplaces, provides important networks and opportunities for young people to "take stock" of themselves and of society, wrestle with social and political attitudes and values, explore their identities, build skills, contribute to their communities, and develop a larger sense of purpose beyond the pursuit of individual gain.53 For young people, the new Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (PL 111-13) increases the numbers of slots in AmeriCorps programs and adds several new corps and fellowships. It also increases the education award and adds flexibility in how young people can get engaged in service and balance service with their other responsibilities. Finally, it targets the needs of low-income communities and prioritizes the inclusion of marginalized youth.54
Targeting marginalized youth is especially important because research has consistently shown that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds have few opportunities to gain civic skills and be recruited into civic action. They are much less likely to have parents who participate in community organizations; to have peers who are incorporated into mainstream institutions; to live in neighborhoods that are safe and include opportunities to be involved in civic life; and to attend schools that have strong civic programming, teachers, counselors, and parent participation.55 National service can serve as an important bridge to jobs, not only in building job-related skills and experience, but also in fostering connections to adult mentors, social networks, and organizations.
The third institution, the military, also serves many young people. For the majority of enlistees, the military is not a second-chance institution, but a first choice—though it too is in need of significant reform.56 Still, the military, like four-year residential colleges and universities, is designed to shape the futures of young adults by providing a setting in which they can successfully live, work, and learn. By coupling expectations and demands with guidance, mentoring, and other resources, military service helps young adults acquire skills and fosters a sense of competence. Like national service programs, it also provides a bridge from school to higher education or the labor force by providing tuition credits, loan forgiveness, financial stipends, access to jobs, or health insurance and other benefits.
By strengthening community colleges, service learning programs, and military service, the nation can establish clearer and more viable paths into adulthood for those who are not college bound and engage these young people positively in social institutions. College is not the only route to a successful adulthood, but alternatives are few and must be improved. Although youth with a bachelor's degree clearly have multiple advantages, the "college for all" mentality does a disservice to many young adults who simply do not have the intellectual, motivational, and economic resources to complete a four-year (or more) program of higher education.
These are but a few examples of the existing institutions that must be reformed or buttressed in response to the longer and more complex transition to adulthood today. And because this new, lengthened transition is not a passing phenomenon and is likely to grow yet more complicated, it may be necessary to create new institutions, especially ones that can better support middle- and working-class families alongside populations that have traditionally been viewed as socially or economically disadvantaged. The inability to reform existing institutions and create new ones carries significant costs for young people, their families, and our society.
Although many policy makers in Washington are now focused on programs designed for the early years of a child's life (the critical "zero to three" years), it remains important to offer supports as youth make their way into adulthood. Without discounting the importance of services in infancy and early childhood, we stress that young adults make and take exceedingly consequential decisions and actions that carry strong and cumulative effects—on schooling, work, marriage, and parenthood—over the many decades of life ahead. Only by continuing or increasing investments in young people after the age of eighteen can policy makers implement the supports needed to make the road to adulthood less perilous.