Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
How Well Do Traditional Supports Work?
One important if not unexpected finding of the Network was that existing institutions work much better for affluent young adults than they do for most others. Family resources and the opportunities they afford have become more central to educational attainment. And, with educational attainment an increasingly potent predictor of economic success and stable family life, growing levels of inequality have created an ever larger chasm between the affluent third (roughly corresponding to college graduates) and the rest of the population. The economic burden on families, particularly those in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution, has been growing far more rapidly than their capacity to undertake a longer and more expensive period of investment in their children’s futures. Increasingly, parents are being asked to take on the costs of education, health care, and, often, support of children in their early twenties (and often later).
Although parents of all social strata seem to understand and accept the new schedule for growing up, middle- and lower-income parents are ill-equipped to handle the costs entailed, and the result is a sharply tilted playing field for young adult development. The new demands of supporting young adults for longer periods create impossible burdens for lower-income households and pose serious problems for all parents who must balance the need to make increased financial (and emotional) investments in their adult children against the need to ensure their own retirements. This privatized approach to investment in the nation’s young is quite different from the accepted public approach to education for children below the age of eighteen.
Health care represents a glaring example of how the nation’s public arrangements simply do not work for young adults who follow the new schedule for coming of age. Today’s health care system more or less protects low-income children up to age eighteen, or in some instances twenty-one, but it does nothing for older youth who lack work-based or school-based health insurance. All but the most affluent parents are frustrated in their efforts to fill the health insurance gap. The pending health care bill, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, will go a long way toward correcting the problem.
The new public-private approach to supporting higher education is equally problematic. Parents of modest means are hard-pressed to help their children obtain a college education. Although, as described in several articles in this volume, the nation makes both grants and loans available to low-income students, the process for applying for that money—and for finding out how large the grant or loan would be—is complex, intimidating, and cumbersome. As a result, many low-income students simply do not apply. Others end up borrowing and eventually owe considerable amounts of money or try to put themselves through school by working. These two options may not represent a problem for low- and moderate-income families whose children are well-prepared for college. But many youth from these families grow up in areas with poorly functioning school systems and are ill-prepared to make the transition to college. Without adequate economic and social support, they may flounder in the transition to college, creating a nightmare scenario where they fail to get a degree that enables them to repay their educational debts. Although the educational burdens on upper-income families are considerable, these parents are better equipped to help meet the costs of higher education, and their children are better prepared to succeed in college. Here too recent efforts to amend the student financial aid system and to increase Pell Grants and other sources of support could help to address these challenges for low- and moderate-income families.
Once students arrive at college, they tend to receive strikingly different levels of support depending on their economic background. Most four-year residential institutions, which are largely populated by relatively affluent youth, are extremely well-suited to assist young adults in transition. They provide orientations for incoming students and their families, an array of services and counseling should students encounter problems, mentoring delivered by older students, recreational and extracurricular programs, health and mental health services, and, of course, residences. Students who get off track receive academic and emotional guidance. Many of these colleges and universities even offer career counseling and job placement for graduates. Furthermore, these institutions are conveniently linked to postgraduate education programs that are, generally speaking, similarly well-designed for youth in their mid- and late-twenties.
By contrast, the two-year community colleges that less affluent students are likely to attend are typically bare-bones institutions stretched thin by a myriad of demands and insufficient resources. Although potentially useful portals of entry for students hoping to move on to a four-year college, a skilled job, or a semi-profession that requires an associate’s degree or a licensing exam, many two-year colleges lack the most basic amenities offered by a four-year residential college or even a four-year commuter school. Campus life is frequently limited, and the services afforded are meager or nonexistent. Students, often unprepared and overcommitted by outside obligations, pose serious challenges to the sometimes underpaid, overburdened faculty and administrators. Rather than serving as beacons of opportunity, too many of these two-year colleges are revolving doors through which students wander aimlessly in search of future direction. Indeed, research supported by the U.S. Department of Education shows that close to half of students who enter a community college do not earn a degree and are not enrolled in any other postsecondary institution six years later.
In collaboration with MDRC, Network researchers undertook an assessment of how community colleges could realize their mission of providing academic training to allow students to get a degree or secure a job that might be otherwise unattainable without special training. Analysts examined several programs aimed at improving student outcomes, including changes in instructional practices, enhancements to student services, and increases in financial support. Although not all the programs were successful, some led to significant improvements in students’ academic performance and persistence. The findings, as presented in the article in this volume by Thomas Brock, suggest that policy makers and educators need not accept high dropout rates as a given. Rather, by making changes in institutional practices—including new forms of flexible financial aid that incentivize and reward students who get good grades and complete courses, as well as innovative "learning community" programs that integrate courses and create study peer groups—they can boost the odds that more young people will earn college degrees and succeed in the labor market.
During the middle decades of the twentieth century and extending through the Vietnam War, military service represented an attractive possibility for youth who were not college bound. It provided, as Ryan Kelty, Meredith Kleykamp, and David R. Segal report in their article in this volume, an effective bridge from high school to work for a large number of young men who lacked vocational direction. Although the military continues today to provide a supportive environment for men and women who want to serve their country, leave home, and get training, it is increasingly meant to provide a military career rather than a transition to the civilian labor market. Smaller and more select than the draft-era military, today’s military is disinclined to afford training to youth who may exhibit educational deficits. Other youth-oriented institutions could learn much from the way the military trains and supports young adults, but the military itself is no longer a significant remedial institution for poorly functioning young adults.
From the Depression-era’s Civilian Conservation Corps, to the Great Society’s Peace Corps and VISTA, to the 1980s state and urban conservation corps, and to the 1990s Corporation for National and Community Service and its dramatic expansion in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, policy makers have experimented episodically with institutions that serve the community while providing training and experience for young people who are unemployable or who simply want to gain skills, serve the community, or move on to independent living. Countless studies have assessed and evaluated the effect of service corps of various types. One rigorous study concluded that they can and often do play a useful role in providing time and space for young people to gain experience, acquire useful work skills and direction, and build a sense of commitment to the larger community. If such results can be extended and built on by the Serve America Act, community service programs could begin to reach the scale needed to provide a new "institution" to help meet the needs of youth making the extended transition to adulthood.
Often coming as a year-long experience between high school and college or work, or as a year off during or after college, youth service programs could be a valuable bridging program with double social utility. Through these programs, young people do important work in their local communities—in hospitals, schools, and other public and nonprofit settings—and gain many experiences needed to make a successful transition to adulthood. In the long-standing debate about the pros and cons of mandatory national service for all, the passage of the Serve America Act may signal a commitment to build a voluntary, as opposed to a mandatory, system of opportunities for a diverse group of young people. This signal notwithstanding, unless concrete steps are taken to build the capacity of service models that work, to collect evidence of their ongoing effectiveness, and to build a record of their accomplishments—much as the WPA’s accomplishments were documented and remain for all to see in the nation’s parks and other structures—history suggests that expansion could be followed by contraction. After all, it was only a few short years ago that the Corporation for National and Community Service survived a near-death experience in Congress. But this time, getting it right may matter more than it has in the past, given the dearth of institutions to help meet the demands of a lengthened transition to adulthood.
Some proportion of young adults—those exiting foster care; youth in special education or with physical, emotional, or cognitive limitations; the homeless; and the many exiting jail or prison—are at much higher risk in the transition to adulthood. Because these populations often overlap, however, it is hard to estimate their number precisely. Most experts believe that the share of youth who are at risk of encountering serious problems is significant. The vast majority come from poor and near-poor families that are disproportionately African American and Latino.
Much of the Network’s attention has been focused on the very expensive systems that serve these vulnerable populations as children—foster care, juvenile justice, special education, and social security disability. No easy or cost-free solutions are available to help these youth improve their prospects as young adults. Early detection of youths with problems, better schooling, and better alternatives to foster care and incarceration could reduce the share that enters early adulthood without the requisite skills to take advantage of educational opportunities and eventually find good jobs. But even with the best schooling and most effective preventive and ameliorative services, another challenge would be how to integrate the diverse systems that serve vulnerable youth. In addition, these youth often lack the family supports that other young people have as they age into young adulthood. The failure of existing institutions to adapt to current realities and the dearth of new institutions to serve young people without family supports are huge problems, as many of these young adults at risk will face lifelong problems that must be paid for one way or another.