Academic journal article The Future of Children

Young Adults and Higher Education: Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Young Adults and Higher Education: Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success

Article excerpt

Few decisions matter more to a young person's future than the decision to attend college and earn a degree. As described by Sheldon Danziger and David Ratner in their article in this volume, college graduates have substantially better prospects in the labor market than peers who stop their formal education after high school. In fact, over a lifetime, an adult with a bachelor's degree will earn about $2.1 million--roughly one-third more than an adult who starts but does not complete college and nearly twice as much as one who has only a high school diploma. (1) College attendance and completion provide other benefits as well. For example, adults who have attended some college or earned a bachelor's degree are more likely to report "excellent" or "very good" health than those who have only a high school diploma, even when they have comparable incomes. (2) College is often where people form their deepest friendships and meet future spouses or partners. Finally, as Constance Flanagan and Peter Levine discuss in their article in this volume, research shows that educational attainment has positive effects on voting and other measures of civic engagement. (3)

Clearly, many of the benefits that accrue from a college education are explained by the knowledge, skills, and contacts that students gain from their time on campus and in the classroom. From a developmental standpoint, colleges and universities also provide a safe environment for young adults to explore new ideas and interests, interact with people who are different from themselves, and form their identity. For all these reasons, colleges and universities play an indispensable role in the transition to adulthood. At their best, they foster both intellectual and personal growth and prepare young people for productive lives at work and in society. Few public or private institutions have the capacity to do so much good for so many.

My purpose in this article is to examine data on college enrollment and completion in the United States and to explore what might be done to help more young people benefit from the experience and complete college degrees. I begin by reviewing historical trends to show how the numbers and characteristics of college students have changed in the past forty years. Access to higher education, it turns out, has increased substantially, although some racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented. But success in college--as measured by persistence and degree attainment--has not improved at all. I then examine some leading explanations for why college students do not succeed and review some research findings on interventions designed to help at-risk students overcome barriers. I conclude with some lessons and suggestions to guide policy makers, practitioners, and researchers.

The Changing Landscape of Higher Education: 1965-2005

Before 1965, American colleges and universities were rarefied places populated mostly by white males from middle- or upper-income families. In part, the lack of diversity reflected the fact that for much of the nation's history, a college education was not needed to make a decent living. Indeed, after World War II, the difference between the average wages of high school and college graduates was small and shrinking. After 1950, however, the trend moved in the opposite direction and accelerated as the demand for highly skilled labor increased. (4) In 1975, year-round workers with a bachelor's degree earned 1.5 times the annual pay of workers with only a high school diploma; by 1999, that ratio had risen to 1.8. (5)

Prevailing social norms and a limited federal role in higher education also served to keep higher education an exclusive domain before the 1960s. In many parts of the country, discriminatory laws and attitudes kept many blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities from pursuing a college degree. Prevailing attitudes about the role of women limited their college-going as well. …

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