The Changing 'Forgotten Half'

It's Less Than Half--And Two-Thirds Male

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You remember "the forgotten half,'' of course. The phrase was propelled onto the editorial pages and into public consciousness by the 1988 reports of the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. Despite the complexity of the commission's analysis of the interactions of education, family formation, and income dynamics, the phrase has become a sloganistic shorthand for "non-college-bound youths,'' and is applied to those between the ages of 16 and 20.

The Grant Commission warned us about misusing the phrase, but we have insisted. The shorthand makes three dubious statements. First, that those who complete high school and continue their education have enough attention paid to them, thank you. They are well taken care of, and will succeed as participating members of our society and economy. Second, and conversely, that nobody cares about people who do not meet these criteria, and they, in turn, will not succeed. The slogan thus labels and predicts winners and losers. Lastly, the slogan relies on a convenient benchmark, "half.'' Sounds neat.

How accurate are these assumptions? The best way to find out is not to look prospectively from the position of a 16-year-old, but rather retrospectively from the position of a 30-year-old. Determine what actually happens to people by the time they establish themselves as adults, and only then classify them on the basis of what they were doing when they were 15 or 18 or 20. Having done so, we can determine precisely whom we are talking about, how large a group they constitute, and hence where--and in what quantities--we should be aiming policy.

The best place to find out who winds up in "the forgotten half'' lies in the U.S. Education Department's longitudinal studies. Longitudinal studies are like movies. We watch the same people over a long period of time. Longitudinal studies are slow and frustrating, but very accurate, particularly when the archive of information includes school and college records.

The studies began in 1972 (with 12th graders), 1980 (with 10th graders), and 1988 (with 8th graders). Each was designed to follow its group for 12 to 15 years. In 1993, we know a good deal about the first two groups.

What happened to the Class of '72 by "thirtysomething''? Since this group was set up in the spring of its senior year in high school, we miss the 20 percent of the cohort that the U.S. Census tells us never made it to commencement. Of the high school graduates (three million people), 40 percent neither continued their formal education nor received training in the military. Another 15 percent continued their education, but earned fewer than a semester's worth of credits by the time they were 30.

Notice that this description already includes two other retrospective groups: folks who pursued military careers (in which there is a good deal of care and training), and folks who went to college, community college, or vocational school but who wound up as incidental students. Were these people "forgotten''? I don't think so.

For the entire cohort that might have been in the Class of '72, "the forgotten half'' is nonetheless an understatement: It's more than 55 percent. And if you look back from the status of these individuals at age 32 to their status as teenagers and young adults, what you see is no surprise: very little math or science in high school, low scores on basic-skills/learned-ability tests, no attempt to return to school at any time, higher degrees of unemployment, lower satisfaction with jobs and career paths.

The Class of '82 is already showing us a somewhat different pattern, starting with a high school graduation rate 8 percent higher than that for the Class of '72. And preliminary indications suggest an increase of 4 percent to 5 percent in the proportion of those who had some postsecondary education by the time they were in their late 20's. Based on what I've observed of the college transcripts coded so far, we should also see a drop in the percentage of incidental students. I don't know whether the final data (due in the fall) will support these estimates precisely, or how much of the class received its postsecondary training in the military, but it looks like "the forgotten half'' is now less than 45 percent.

What's happened? First, it was a lot easier for people to attend college, community college, or vocational school in the 1980's than it was in the 1970's. We did not have Pell Grants or massive Guaranteed Student Loan programs in 1972 for people who might otherwise have been "forgotten,'' but by 1982 we did.

Second--and more importantly--while college enrollment rates rose by 10 percent between 1972 and 1989, the enrollment rate for women rose twice as much as that for men. Women now account for 55 percent of all postsecondary students. This trend is part of a larger story of the spectacular rise in women's educational attainment, and of changes in attitudes of parents toward their daughters' futures.

If "the forgotten half'' is now somewhat less than "half,'' it is also heavily male. Unless we do something different than we're currently doing (or thinking about doing), it will continue to be that way. For what national longitudinal studies consistently demonstrate is that men are less frequent and enthusiastic participants in education or training than are women. In addition, the most conservative estimates of cutbacks in military "accessions'' mean that from 85,000 to 100,000 people a year will no longer have this option for further education and training open to them, and will thus fall into "the forgotten half.'' The vast majority of this group is male.

Our current educational response to "the forgotten half'' focuses on some well-intentioned alternatives to traditional vocational and cooperative education. Nearly all these new forms of school-to-work transition programs involve combinations of academic and vocational education, coordinating roles for community colleges, occupational (or career-path) "majors,'' participation of local businesses, and on-the-job mentoring.

But from limited data available on these experimental school-to-work programs directed at "the forgotten half,'' men again appear to be a minority of participants. For example, the ProTech program in Boston, a creation of Jobs for the Future, is 64 percent female. The model apprenticeship program run by the Maine Center for Youth Apprenticeship out of Maine Technical College in South Portland is 67 percent female. The most recent estimate from the demonstration Tech-Prep program at Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon is that of the 252 students who transferred credits from their high schools, nearly 70 percent were female.

To be sure, some of this has to do with the way labor market segmentation drives demand-side education. That is, the health-service fields dominate the ProTech program, for example, and health services are traditionally female occupations. But even when new modes of school-to-work transition programs are established with a balance of "traditionally male'' and "traditionally female'' occupations, the curriculum/training pathways in the female fields attract larger populations. Why?

These programs are all small in scope: 115 students here, 15 there, and 40 somewhere else. Even when you add them up, double or triple their capacity, and assume that the capacity will be filled, their total coverage is still marginal. Expansions at the margin are worthy, but selective. When programs are selective, they "cream.'' That is, they take the best, the most motivated, the most likely to persist. In matters of education, whether academic, vocational, or some combination of the two, women meet those criteria far more than men, and are likely to dominate the selected.

This is a serious issue, one that is little marked in discussions of youth policy as a whole. As is the case with most education issues, we are obsessed with race and socioeconomic status. We rarely think about gender. But look within every ethnic or socioeconomic group, and you will see that men have fallen off the mark.

How do we bring them back to the mark? While the challenge involves family, community, and broader cultural trends, it is fair to ask what education and training programs can do. I don't have a full plate of answers, but a guiding principle in these efforts should be to nurture and not disconnect. Small study/work groups or networks have proven to be productive in this regard. As long as the networks are task-driven, members will feel more valued than if they worked alone, and, as a consequence, should develop more confidence in their ability to learn. Study and work groups yield involvement, and I am less worried than the lawyers if all the members of a group are of the same gender. As a parent, I am also not disturbed if networking of male adolescents ties up telephone lines orshares family tools and books (as long as I get them back). These connections work against the doubt and discontinuity that adolescent men seek to cover with behaviors (braggadocio and hot air being among the least harmful, though most common) that close them off from future productivity.

Other occasions for male involvement in task-oriented teams, from athletics to drama to youth/church groups, should be utilized as much as possible. Don't sneer: The histories of the classes of 1972 and 1982 clearly demonstrate that those who were involved in these activities were more likely to persist in school and continue their education than those who were not involved.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have also reported these activities to be "validating'' experiences for entering college and community-college students who were otherwise doubtful of their place in a learning community. Reading through transcripts of interviews with these students, I found the men consistently more uncertain than women.

Jack Miller, who directs the demonstration Tech-Prep program at Mt. Hood Community College and its eight feeder high schools, adds another dimension to our understanding of this phenomenon when he notes that "by age 17 or 18, men are more likely to give up on schooling; but the community college sees them again when they are 29 or so, coming back and struggling with basic skills so that they can make it into high-tech training programs.'' A decade is lost in there; and while the community colleges (unlike other educational institutions) are flexible enough to help, there is a lot of territory for them to cover.

This lost time and territory cry out for a changing of young men's attitudes toward what will make a difference in individual lives and the life of the community. That's a responsibility we all share. Let's start by not labeling people as "forgotten,'' or giving them the false security of thinking they belong to a large group, even if it isn't quite "half.''

Vol. 13, Issue 01, Pages 41, 56

Published in Print: September 8, 1993, as The Changing 'Forgotten Half'
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