Research by Public Agenda, prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them Commentary 1

Students lacking services that support completion

by Hilary Pennington

A mom who juggles parenting, work and college while her husband serves overseas.

An electrician who knows that, without a college degree, he’s the “lowest on the totem pole” when applying for jobs.

A swimming instructor trying to squeeze in classes while working full-time hours for part-time pay.

In today’s America, these are typical college students.

While most institutes of higher learning were established to serve full-time students who are financially dependent on their parents, the reality is that those types of young adults make up only about 25 percent of college students. Who are the other 75 percent? They are millions of men and women likes the ones above who were recently profiled by Public Agenda for a new report on college completion titled, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them.”

These students – the mom, the electrician, the swimming instructor – they know the value of a college credential, but their path to obtain one is blocked. And they’re not unlike millions of other college students who are often under-prepared academically, but share a common defining characteristic of having to work their way through school. This simple, but mostly unnoticed shift in the backgrounds of our nation’s college students is one of the great untold stories of education.

That’s why “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” is so important and powerful.

It gives us an unvarnished look into the complicated lives of young adults, and it gives policymakers, college presidents and others clear directions on the kinds of supports and assistance young people need to be successful today. Things like providing child care, flexible schedules, and greater access to financial aid. These are not earth-shaking ideas, yet they are vital.

When one young woman who participated in the Public Agenda research was presented with those ideas, she replied incredulously: “Would a college ever do that?”

Here’s a better question: “Why aren’t they?”









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Can I Get A Little Advice Here?, the second of Public Agenda's studies on college completion, asks young Americans how much help they received from the high school guidance system when it comes to choosing a college or career or getting financial aid for college. In too many cases, young people tell us, the answer is "not much." Based on a national survey of young adults, ages 22 to 30, we found six in 10 of those who went on to further education gave their high school counselors poor grades for their college advice, and nearly half say they felt like "just a face in the crowd." With college costs rising and completion rates sinking in the United States, this raises serious questions about what kind of help young people need, and whether they're getting it.

Report 1: With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them

Report 2: Can I Get A Little Advice Here?

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With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Students lacking services that support completion

Students lacking services that support completion

A mom who juggles parenting, work and college while her husband serves overseas.

An electrician who knows that, without a college degree, he’s the “lowest on the totem pole” when applying for jobs.

A swimming instructor trying to squeeze in classes while working full-time hours for part-time pay.

In today’s America, these are typical college students.

While most institutes of higher learning were established to serve full-time students who are financially dependent on their parents, the reality is that those types of young adults make up only about 25 percent of college students. Who are the other 75 percent? They are millions of men and women likes the ones above who were recently profiled by Public Agenda for a new report on college completion titled, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them.”

These students – the mom, the electrician, the swimming instructor – they know the value of a college credential, but their path to obtain one is blocked. And they’re not unlike millions of other college students who are often under-prepared academically, but share a common defining characteristic of having to work their way through school. This simple, but mostly unnoticed shift in the backgrounds of our nation’s college students is one of the great untold stories of education.

That’s why “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” is so important and powerful.

It gives us an unvarnished look into the complicated lives of young adults, and it gives policymakers, college presidents and others clear directions on the kinds of supports and assistance young people need to be successful today. Things like providing child care, flexible schedules, and greater access to financial aid. These are not earth-shaking ideas, yet they are vital.

When one young woman who participated in the Public Agenda research was presented with those ideas, she replied incredulously: “Would a college ever do that?”

Here’s a better question: “Why aren’t they?”