A century ago, Progressive-era reformers, shocked by the number of teens trapped in dead-end jobs, launched a remarkable campaign to help everyone attend high school. For nearly 40 years, this country opened a new high school, on average, every day. A high school diploma allowed the children of factory workers and farmers to obtain relatively high-skilled, high-wage jobs, narrowing the wage gap among the social classes and enhancing the growth of the nation’s economy.
Today, we face a similar problem at the university level. Young people increasingly realize that they cannot earn a living wage without going to college. Yet many are woefully unprepared to do so, both because of the inferior education in most low-income communities and because their parents cannot help them through college. So they work extra hours and take on crippling debt loads. About a third of the students at public or private four-year universities and two-thirds of those who enroll in a community college or a for-profit institution do not earn a degree, while accumulating substantial red ink.
Even for those who graduate, the transition from college to the job market is anything but smooth. Despite expanded career advising services, colleges do a poor job of helping students figure out what they want to do once they enter the working world.
The government and universities could help if they cleared new roads to affordable college education, medical care and living-wage jobs. Improving college graduation rates would certainly make a difference. Strengthening connections between universities and the job market, through co-op and apprenticeship programs, service learning, and expanded internship opportunities, would also help. More broadly available paid national service programs could not only address social problems such as poverty and homelessness but provide an income and job experience to those who participate.
The path to independent adulthood is changing. Now it often must, and actually should, lead back to the family home after college. The good news for parents is that your graduate will achieve economic independence eventually. In the meantime, accept a basic fact of life: Given the realities of today’s economy, your nest will not empty out right away.
Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood” and “Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life.”
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