"Youth Less Motivated, Study Says," read one headline. Another headline in a different newspaper dismissed those same youths as "idle."

Are they really?

That seems an odd interpretation of this year's Annie E. Casey Foundation study on the well-being of U.S. children. The annual report, released last month, examines factors such as health care, education and economic stability in measuring the overall welfare of the nation's young people. The statistics are exhaustive and are broken down state by state, allowing comparisons across the country.

An essay accompanying this year's study focused on "disconnected youth," those who are neither working nor in school. The foundation currently counts 3.8 million people between ages 18 and 24 in this category, about 15 percent of young adults. Their ranks are increasing: Since 2000, their number grew 700,000, a 19 percent increase.

"For many of these young people . . . the transition to adulthood is not a time of anticipation and possibility; it is a time of fear and frustration. A significant number of these 3.8 million kids have neither the skills, supports, experience, education, nor confidence to successfully transition to adulthood," wrote Douglas W. Nelson, president of the foundation.

That the number of people in this category has spiked in recent years isn't surprising. A recession followed by a sluggish, largely jobless, recovery has left even many educated, experienced workers struggling in the employment market. Labor Department statistics suggest that when times get tough, certain groups of people tend to get marginalized from the workforce: mothers, young people, older workers, blacks and Hispanics, in particular.

The absence of young people from the workforce is largely invisible. Most never show up in unemployment statistics because they never had a job to lose.

Nor is it shocking that many of them are forgoing school. As entry-level job opportunities have shriveled up, recent college grads with the means to do so have flocked to graduate and professional schools, making admissions highly competitive. The Law School Admissions Council says 90,853 people applied to American Bar Association-

accredited law schools in 2002, an increase of more than 17 percent over 2001. Similar trends are at work in competitive MBA and other graduate programs.

The repercussions trickle down from the elite institutions. Scores and grades that would have gotten you into Harvard five years ago will barely warrant a glance from second-tier schools these days. As the high-achieving students grab spots at their second-, third- or even fourth-choice schools, the average students who would have gone to such institutions are pushed out entirely.

Add to this the increases in undergraduate and graduate school tuition that have accompanied tighter state budgets across the country, and you get closer to determining why more kids have dropped off society's radar.

As Brigitte Pribnow, a senior at University of Maryland Baltimore County and an intern at Progressive Maryland, pointed out in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Maryland lawmakers, led by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), "cut deeper into higher education in their recent session than into any other budget item." (Outlook, July 4)

Tuition at Maryland's state universities rose 20 percent last year, Pribnow points out. It is expected to increase by an additional 11 percent this fall. Further, she writes, "the projected funding cuts will deny enrollment at the state's 11 public campuses to about 3,000 qualified students." These projections may be overly dire because enrollments at Maryland's public universities, like at most campuses across the nation, continue to rise. However, we should still be concerned because higher costs are most likely to affect poor and working-class students who are already struggling to pay, and who are most at risk of being priced out of higher education.

What these "disconnected" kids clearly need is better consideration in policy decisions that acutely affect them, not the sort of contempt evident in those newspaper headlines. Given good opportunities, most of them probably would have no trouble finding their motivation.

Observing the Sabbath

Do you take off work for the Sabbath? Is your employer accommodating or resistant? If you're willing to share your story for a column on the subject, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. tomorrow at www.washingtonpost.com.