Education, Education, Education
Higher education is the most important first step on the road to adulthood. Deciding whether to pursue a four-year college degree, and where to do it, is stressful. It is a time filled with both hope and anxiety: Can I get into college? Will I get into my dream school? What will I study? Will I be able to afford it? How much will my parents be able to help? Both young people and their parents feel the weight of these questions, and parents in particular may feel under the gun. They have invested their lives in guiding their children toward this very moment. A lot is on the line. And it's not just a diploma. Parents today recognize the importance of a college degree, particularly those who have a degree themselves and have reaped its rewards. They also know that a college degree is no longer a luxury but a necessity. It is the passport to a good job and a shot at a successful life. Parents across the spectrum realize this, yet not all parents are equally equipped to guide their children into and through college. Some are breaking their backs, and their banks, to get their children into the very best schools, while others don't even know where to start.
Ask any veteran undergraduate advisers or admissions officers what the single biggest change has been in working with prospective and incoming students, and they'll quickly answer: "Parents!" No need to even think about it. "Sixteen years ago, when I started advising, parents just dropped their kids off in orientation," says Kim McAlexander, a long-time adviser at Oregon State University whom we interviewed in the winter of 2008. "They'd do the driving and be here in the opening session, and we didn't hear from them again. Now we can't get a room big enough because of the parents." While some may shake their heads at these parents' hyperinvolvement, this change signals a fundamental shift in the parenting strategies of middle-class families. Parents have recognized that they are necessary for preparing their children for college, and for guiding them through tough decisions such as school choice, majors, and post-college plans, and they are acting accordingly. Unfortunately, the intense parenting today also creates an escalating arms race from which no one can afford to back down. As one parent said, "I know this is madness, but I don't want my kid to lose out."
What has this madness wrought exactly? Family stress, financial strain, and high expectations that kids often have a hard time living up to, to name a few. This overreach has been building for decades. Parents put it all on the line to move to neighborhoods with better primary schools, leading many to overextend on mortgages. The financial strain is also exacerbated when parents and their children strive for elite colleges over more affordable state universities. As a result, families today are working more, commuting longer hours, and saving less. The education arms race has led to a rat race. Perhaps this is one reason why, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center, the middle class is an increasingly anxious and unhappy class.
The insidious thing about the education arms race is that it may be "smart for one, but dumb for all," to borrow a phrase from Robert H. Frank's book Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. It may be smart for an individual, say, who gets wind of a failing bank to tell no one and quietly pull out his or her savings. But when the bank fails--and the economy tanks, along with that person's job--who's smart now? Smart for one, dumb for all. The same applies here. Until there is a stand-down in the education race, no one will want to risk the results of not staying in the game. Parents can control how much they spend on college and--if they have the funds--they have the power to decide whether to invest in private tutoring or private elementary school. What they cannot control is how much other parents spend on their children's education. And so the demands just keep escalating.
The arms race in education is creating a gaping divide between those who are able to keep up and those who aren't, hollowing out the middle. The result is a society of extremes with no average, no middle, and an ever-more-desperate struggle to stay at the top. What was once only a small ding on a windshield is now a crack that is rapidly splitting the country into two tiers--the swimmers and those who are anxiously treading to prevent from sinking. It is here, on this first step into adulthood, where young people's diverging destinies lock in and take hold. The very privileged, or the very lucky, are then most likely to be able to realize the high-achiever dreams. One thing is for sure: Parents today who take a hands-off approach to higher education, letting their children figure things out on their own in the name of independence or because they simply don't have the know-how, are inadvertently putting their children at risk.
Another problem emerges from this arms race--youths' expectations and sense of entitlement have risen like a helium balloon in thin air. As we discuss in the chapter on work, young people increasingly want to work in jobs with high salaries and prestige, but they don't want to make the commitments of time and energy that are required to get the positions they want--a collision course waiting to happen. That same collision course is evident in education. Seldom have so many young people had such high aspirations for college, yet floundered so badly. Nearly seven in ten high school seniors plan to attend some form of college or training after high school. Yet of the three million young people who will show up on campus for their first year, nearly one-half will drop out--without a degree, but often with a big bill--within six years.1 The odds of dropping out are even more dismal for those who start in community colleges. It is a little-known fact today, but only one-fourth of young adults between ages twenty-five and thirty-four have a bachelor's degree, in a world in which nearly half of all jobs require a degree of some sort.2
This alarming disconnect between the very high aspirations of young people and their low graduation rates is one of the key reasons for the longer and more insecure path into adulthood today. Both the demand for more education and the stutter steps that so many young people take while getting that education--and not, as some have claimed, the cost of living or even the burden of debt on young people--delay each milestone along the path to becoming an "adult." With so much hanging on this first step of education, and so many young people struggling to take it, the other milestones in adulthood are quickly delayed. This gulf is also the source of critical early missteps that will have repercussions for the rest of life.
Why is this happening? Why do so many aspire to college only to fail? More important, what does it mean for America when so many young adults are struggling on this first step of adulthood?
Lost Without a Compass
Given the importance of higher education today to earning a living wage with benefits, it is surprising how unprepared many young people are for college and how unformed their plans really are. The news media trumpet stories about this generation's best and the brightest--like Eric Ding, the twenty-five-year-old Harvard cancer researcher who parlayed his interest in breast cancer research into a foundation seeking faster cures, or Jon Favreau, who at age twenty-nine has been helping Barack Obama write his speeches since 2005 and joined the administration as head speechwriter in 2009. This stand-out group has been cultivated from early on to achieve, and achieve they do.
Or we hear about young people who may not be wunderkinder but are successfully launching professional careers--people like Ben or Lily, whom the Network interviewed. Ben attended an elite undergraduate program on the East Coast and later New York University law school. Today he is working in a top-tier corporate law firm in Chicago, earning a comfortable six-figure salary. Lily graduated from a state university in California with a degree in math, and at age twenty-five is working on her master's degree while teaching in an inner-city middle school.
The attention given to the top-tier success stories of students with graduate or professional degrees masks a harsher reality. For the bulk of young adults, the story is vastly different. For all the hype, only 5 percent of young adults today earn graduate or professional degrees by age thirty-four.3 Many more young students are instead like Angelina and Peter.
When Angelina graduated from high school, she had little sense of what she wanted to do with her life. Coming as she did from a traditional family, she assumed that she would get a two-year degree, get married, and have kids. She enrolled in a community college, but when the opportunity arose to spend a few months working at Disney World on the other side of the country, she scraped together enough money for a plane ticket. That experience was a turning point in her life, and when she returned, she enrolled in a four-year university an hour and a half from her hometown.
That path, however, would not be easy for Angelina. Her parents, both farm laborers with minimal education, had never experienced college for themselves and could not help guide her, and her high school had done little to prepare her for the rigors of college courses. Her grades dipped, she switched majors, and she took on too many extracurricular commitments (including a job). Through it all, she rarely visited the counseling and advisement staff for guidance. This led to several spells on academic probation. Today at age twenty-five, she is in her sixth year of college, watching as her more focused and privileged classmates plow their way through a four-year track. She wonders why she wasn't so lucky.
Angelina is following the pattern of many students whose parents are not college graduates. While 61 percent of students whose parents have a professional degree finish college in four years, only 14 percent of the Angelinas of this world do.4 Angelina often feels out of sync because she is older than her classmates. "Sometimes I'm jealous of them," she says, "because I know that they went to college all straight four years. Now they're graduating and I wish I could have done that. I want my career already. I'm tired of being here, listening to the little freshmen. I just want to graduate and have my life started."
You have to give Angelina credit for hanging in there. The majority of students in her position do not pull themselves off academic probation or dig themselves out of "rookie mistakes," like getting too involved in extracurricular activities or taking the wrong classes. Nor do they get over switching majors, or--even more disruptive--switching institutions. It is at times like these that parents' advice clearly separates the swimmers from the treaders. Not only are first-generation college students like Angelina more likely to attend the least selective institutions (even when they are more than capable of attending selective schools), they are also more likely to take unwarranted detours along the way. Sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong, in her recent study of undergraduates at Indiana University, noticed a distinct trend. "Parents with a college education," she says, "tell their kids, 'No way, don't take Psych 101 again.' Whereas the kids whose parents don't have a clue, they're at the mercy of the advising system. As universities are set up, the more talented kids always get the better advice and better classes."
At least Angelina is nearing graduation. Peter was an average student in his Queens high school. His parents wanted him to go to college, but he was unsure of what exactly he wanted to do. He played in a band at church and loved music, but he didn't know how to parlay that interest into a career. He also considered computer engineering, but his math skills were weak. So he did what many of his peers do--enrolled at the local community college. Yet without guidance, he had no idea what courses to take or how to go about earning an associate's degree. "When I went to register, the classes were filled up, so what was open were classes I never even wanted to take: accounting, which I'm not good at; French--I'd never taken French." He failed both classes, along with a math class, and was put on academic probation.
Peter decided to strike out for Georgia, where an aunt and uncle lived, to attend another community college. "Almost the same thing happened," he says. "For me to be eligible to transfer to a four-year school, I had to take like a liberal arts program, so I was taking sociology, math, English, and gym." He again failed most of his courses. "Everyone says you should go to college, but college doesn't help everybody. I know I should go to college, but I think for some people, college is not for them."
Peter has a point. Yet education or training after high school is a must. Without some form of training, young people face a future of patching together strings of low-wage jobs, forever teetering on the brink of hardship in an unforgiving economy that rewards brains over brawn. Today virtually all jobs paying a decent wage require a degree or certificate. The gap in earnings between those with and without higher education is big and getting bigger. So what do the Peters of this world do when college is not for them?
1. Kim Clark, "Solving the College Crisis," U.S. News and World Report, September 2009.
2. Gates Foundation, "Diplomas Count" (Seattle: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2008). These figures are calculated differently from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2008. The Gates method results in higher estimates. The U.S. Department of Education lists high school dropout rates among people sixteen to twenty-four years old (not enrolled in school and who have not earned a high school diploma or equivalent credential, such as a GED) as 9.3 percent overall in 2006, and 5.8 percent, 10.7 percent, and 22.1 percent for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, respectively. For data on graduation rates within six years, see Sara Goldrick-Rab and Josipa Roksa, "A Federal Agenda for Promoting Student Success and Degree Completion" (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2008). The methods of calculating dropout rates vary across studies, and studies therefore often arrive at slightly different figures. For data on the share of young adults with bachelor's degrees, see Ruben Rumbaut and Golnaz Komai, "Young Adults in the United States: A Mid-Decade Profile" (Philadelphia: MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood, September 2007).
3. Rumbaut and Komai, "Young Adults in the United States."
Copyright © 2010 by Richard Settersten. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.