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Becoming an adult is much more difficult than it was 60 years ago.

Following World War II, the young achieved adult status exceptionally quickly. In 1960, the average American woman was married by the age of 20, with her husband two years older. By age 24, most young people had achieved the markers of adult identity: marriage, children, homeownership and, for men, a steady job.

Today, the passage to adult status is far slower, much less uniform, more circuitous and, in far too many instances, beset with obstacles and reverses.

Even though this society has, in theory, constructed a seamless glide path to a successful adulthood—college-going—in practice, this pathway fails to work for far too many young people.

Statistics tell the story: of 100 high school students, 88 graduate, 61 enroll in college and 37 earn a postsecondary degree in six years. Of those 37, 22 work in a job that is related to their degree.

For the more affluent college graduates, the 20s have become a decade of self-discovery, when privileged young people have unprecedented opportunities to travel and experiment with relationships and jobs while building up their credentials. But, in most cases, this odyssey of exploration is contingent on their parents’ economic subsidies.

For less privileged college graduates, the 20s are a fraught decade when young lives, all too often, go off track.

Popular culture may paint a Fitzgerald-like portrait of the 20s as a decade of fun-loving reckless irresponsibility, the stage of life when the young can do all the things that they will be unable to do when they are older. But for many, it’s in fact a period of loneliness, isolation and anxiety, without the support structures that college or family offers and no clear road map to adult success.

As a society, we cling to an older rule book that no longer conforms to today’s realities. We assume, for example, that the overwhelming majority of young people will marry. While most do, well over a third do not, with marriage rates highly correlated with income, education, ethnicity and race. Among lower-income adults, over 40 percent have never married.

(Of those who do marry, half will divorce, usually within eight years. Although 60 percent of those 55 or older remarry, the figure is just 42 percent for those 18 to 35 years old.)

Nor are the overwhelming majority of children born to a married couple. Today, roughly 40 percent of childbirths occur outside of marriage. The likely explanation: a decline in the number of “marriageable” young men with a stable job and income.

Public policy has failed to adapt to this brave new world. As marriage has lost its grip and the stigma attached to single motherhood has faded, this society has not taken adequate steps to ensure that children in low-income homes are sufficiently supported financially or adequately cared for when their mothers work.

Nor has our system of higher education made appropriate adjustments. As the institutions primarily responsible for job training and human capital development, two- and four-year colleges and universities need to step up their game.

Here’s how:

1. Institutions need to become more inclusive.

Four-year institutions need to admit many more community college transfer students and expedite their progress toward a degree. This will require better alignment of two- and four-year curricula and counting transferred courses to majors as well as gen ed requirements. It also means ensuring course availability, enhancing financial aid for transfer students and increasing access to high-demand majors.

Two-year institutions, in turn, would do well to embrace strategies that have been proven to work:

  • reducing the student-to-adviser ratio
  • tracking struggling students and intervening proactively when needed
  • replacing remedial courses with corequisite remediation
  • strengthening academic support by embedding tutorials, study groups and supplemental instruction sections into high-DFW courses
  • making certificate and degree pathways more coherent, integrated and streamlined
  • offering and awarding more job-related certificates and certifications

2. Colleges and universities shouldn’t treat those who want an applied education as second-class students.

We mustn’t treat vocational or technical education as a second-rate option. The stigma attached to career and technical education—sometimes apparent by relegating schools or colleges of technology to separate campuses—is unwarranted and undeserved. Let’s re-embrace an idea with deep historical roots: the dignity of all forms of work.

3. To meet the needs of nontraditional students, institutions must alter their way of doing business.

It’s not enough for many two- and four-year institutions to increase access. Schedules, curricula, pedagogies, delivery modalities and support services need to adapt to the needs of those populations that are currently underserved. This means multiple start dates, shorter terms, high-touch support and more job-aligned certificate and degree programs.

4. Colleges and universities must become far more attentive to employment outcomes.

This will require two- and four-year colleges and universities to work closely with state workforce commissions and employers to identify employment trends and skills gaps and design and institute programs to meet those needs.

5. Our institutions need to embed way-finding and job-related skills building into their curriculum.

Two- and four-year colleges and universities need to do a much better job of helping students identify their interests and talents, opening windows into career options, and devising a realistic path into the workforce.

There is no longer a well-defined path to a successful adulthood. The “all at once,” “once and for all,” early and abrupt transition to adulthood that defined the post–World War II era is long gone. No longer can young people expect to start at the bottom of a company’s ladder and work their way up. The economy no longer works that way.

Higher education needs to do its part to ease the transition to a secure adulthood.

It’s not an accident that institutions like Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University are growing by leaps and bounds while enrollments at less proactive and career-minded institutions stagnate. The success of WGU and SNHU isn’t simply a matter of marketing. It’s schedules and delivery modes adapted to working adults’ needs combined with robust student services, a focus on proven job-related competencies and laser-like attention to time to completion.

But traditional brick-and-mortar institutions have advantages that WGU and SNHU don’t possess: a physical presence in a local community, in-person faculty and advisers, and labs, libraries and learning support centers that students can visit. Above all, these institutions can provide practicums and clinical and field experiences and work hand in glove with local employers to offer internships.

Higher education has the power to make the transition to adulthood less arduous and anxiety inducing than it currently is. Let’s get started.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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