Growing cost of skipping college
Highly educated workers are at a premium. Others are being left behind.
Christopher Audet tried college, but he couldn't stick with it.Skip to next paragraph
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"School wasn't my thing," he says.
Now a toll-taker in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Mr. Audet makes $5.75 an hour - not enough, he believes, to raise a family. "At least, not with one job," he says.
As the golden economy of the 1990s clips along and consumer confidence reaches record highs, the fruits of the enduring economic boom are bypassing millions of young people like Audet.
About one-third of the country's 18- to 24-year-olds - the unskilled who don't go on to college - are not only being left behind, they're actually doing worse economically than they were 10 years ago. That's despite the recent wage gains for the lowest-paid sectors of the society.
Indeed, the growing gap between those who have college degrees and those who don't provides a window into some of the new social divides that are emerging in the increasingly "knowledge based" economy, where high-technology jobs bring a premium paycheck.
"Although America is very optimistic and very self-satisfied with its economy, there are still a tremendous number of people, at least 10 million, who are not making it in any usual sense of that phrase," says Samuel Halperin of the American Youth Policy Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
Several new studies reveal the depth of the growing divide. The results also underscore the importance of education and vocational training in determining the economic success of many of these young people.
They are the ones who repair televisions, clean buildings, and work in hospitals, nursing homes, and factories. They include the unskilled laborers whose ranks are expected to grow as welfare reform continues to nudge more families off assistance and into low-paying jobs.
Now, as the country enters its eighth straight year of economic growth, a growing coalition of education, labor, and social leaders is calling on Congress to invest more in these working poor. They're particularly concerned about the young, who've come to be called "The Forgotten Half" after a series of studies that documented their plight.
"At a time of enormous budgetary surpluses, we are not looking at how our resources can be used to invest in our young people," says Martin Blank of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "That's got to be on the table, because these are the young men and women who will need to work to fuel our Social Security and Medicare systems in the future."
Ten years ago, the WT Grant Foundation funded the first study called "The Forgotten Half." At the time, it set off alarm bells about the "increasingly bleak earning prospects" of non-college bound young people.
It found their unemployment rate was high, their earning capacity had dropped significantly over the past decade, and almost one-third of families headed by a person under 25 were poor, triple the rate for all American families at the time.