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.

"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.

In 1998, "The Forgotten Half - Revisited" brought even more disquieting news. The unemployment rate for this group was actually higher than in 1988. These young people were experiencing longer bouts of unemployment, and when they did have jobs, the tenure tended to be shorter.

Young men under 25 were also earning one-third less in inflation-adjusted dollars than their counterparts 10 years ago. Young women were earning 16.5 percent less.

"There was a point in time when a growing economy was more equally shared by all of the bakers who were contributing to the pie," says Jarod Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "Now as the pie is growing, the slivers are ever more unequally distributed."

Smaller slice of the pie

Education and skills, more than ever, determine how big a slice an individual gets. "The Forgotten Half - Revisited" did find some good news on that front. The percentage of Americans who graduated from high school increased slightly. But the numbers who went on to college jumped by a third, from 35 percent to 47 percent. However, about half of them dropped out of college in the first year.

"There's been a rise in expectations, and a rise in educational preparation," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based advocate for better public schools. "But kids don't necessarily know what's required to be in college, or have the skills to get a job once they drop out."

That carries a heavy price. Child Trends, a research center that focuses on families, released a study last week that found 42 percent of children in poor families and 36 percent in working poor households had parents with no high school diploma. In families with middle or higher incomes, only 6 percent of children had parents who dropped out of high school.

"That's a huge gap," says Child Trend's Carol Emig. "And we're also concerned that working poor parents in a less robust economy are going to be at an even greater disadvantage."

Public skepticism

Many educators and social leaders contend that as the economy continues to shift toward the high-tech sector, it becomes increasingly important to bridge those wage and education gaps. But they're also cognizant that the apparent failure of many of the "The Great Society" programs of the 1960s and '70s has left the country skeptical about government's ability to solve problems.

"People aren't going to buy the idea of just spending money. You have to convince them if you spend money in the right way, you will get results," says Mr. Jennings.

Indeed, many Great Society Programs like Head Start have proven effective, and Congress has regularly increased their funding. But Jennings and others say there are now many new effective programs, which also need support.

They also believe the Forgotten Half would be helped by encouraging education reforms, increasing the minimum wage, and adjusting welfare reform to allow for more training and education of older, unskilled workers.

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