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Higher Autism Rates: What Can Be done?

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The newest data on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer an alarming picture of childhood disability in America. Approximately 1 in 68 children who were 8 years old in the 11 participating states in 2010 were identified with ASD. This new estimate is more than twice as high as the earliest estimates from 2000 and 2002. The CDC states that "we don't know what is causing this increase. Some of it may be due to the way children are identified, diagnosed, and served in their local communities, but exactly how much is unknown."

People with ASD can have numerous strengths, but the challenges associated with ASD and other disabilities can be persistent and costly for individuals, families, and society. In the Future of Children issue on Children with Disabilities, Stabile and Allin calculated that the average annual cost (in 2011 dollars) to families of children with disabilities was approximately $10,800, and approximately $19,700 to social programs such as Medicaid and special education.

Even though there might be extra costs early on, Aron and Loprest note that early detection and intervention is crucial, and both sets of authors point out that early detection can provide long-term cost savings. However, some families are not screening their children due to barriers such as limited access and the belief that it's unnecessary. Stabile and Allin emphasize that mental health problems, as opposed to physical disabilities, appear to be particularly associated with negative effects on future wellbeing in adulthood.

Having previously practiced social work in a treatment program for adults with ASD, ADHD, and learning disabilities, I've seen first-hand the difficulties that such adults can experience. These include difficulty developing and maintaining relationships (especially romantic relationships), finding and keeping gainful employment, and having healthy self-esteem after years of being bullied by peers.

With the increased prevalence of ASD among children, policy makers should remember that this is not simply a childhood disability, but a lifelong disorder with potentially significant long-term costs and challenges. Clearly, we need more research to understand the causes of ASD, but the funding and evaluation of expensive interventions to prevent and reduce the negative aspects associated with ASD, and other disabilities, during childhood and early adulthood might be justified given the research found in this Future of Children issue.

College for Students with Disabilities

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Future of Children authors Sandy Baum, Charles Kurose, and Michael McPherson write that as postsecondary enrollment expands in the US, student demand for academic and personal support services is increasing. Academic support programs such as developmental or remediation courses help older, returning students or high school graduates who need additional training to reach college-entry level. Personal support programs may provide services such as child care or transportation. All of these programs seek to improve student experiences and college outcomes.

 

Students with learning disabilities are a rapidly growing population that has received relatively little attention in terms of college preparation and support. Many of these children participate in special education programs before finishing high school. Authors Laudan Aron and Pamela Loprest explain that the special education system has helped to increase their access to and participation in public education, but there is room for improvement. An often challenging point for these children is in the transition into adulthood. Janet Currie and Robert Kahn report that high schools offer services to help students make the transition but no one is required to monitor the effectiveness of services for adults once they enter the community.

 

As college enrollment among students with learning disabilities increases, demand for personal and academic support services should also increase. Thus, a growing number of traditional universities are seeking to improve resources for students with disabilities, including supplemental support programs. For the latest research and policy recommendations on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Postsecondary Education and Children with Disabilities.

Reducing the Risk of Parental Incarceration

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To reduce children's exposure to the negative effects of having a parent incarcerated (for example, family financial strain, health and social problems, housing insecurity, etc.), Future of Children authors Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman urged policymakers to limit prison time and provide effective drug treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. In line with this call, Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department would stop perusing mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and promote drug-treatment alternatives to incarceration. The changes, effective immediately, should help to reduce the prison population and the number of children exposed to incarceration.

 

With about half the current prison population meeting the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, effective drug treatment for prisoners and parolees is a serious concern. As the incarceration rate begins to decline, thousands of men and women will be sent back into their communities, and many will need substance abuse treatment. Western and Wildeman report that prisoner reentry programs have been found to reduce recidivism by connecting ex-prisoners to substance abuse treatment services as well as education and employment opportunities.

 

Policymakers and practitioners should also focus on early contact with the criminal justice system. Laurie Chassin notes that substance abuse disorders are common among adolescents in the juvenile justice system and underscores the need for effective screening methods so that youth can be redirected away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems as early as possible. She highlights the role of the youth's social environment and mental health and finds evidence in favor of family-based treatment models.

          

Limiting prison time, providing effective drug-treatment for offenders and ex-prisoners, and identifying and addressing substance-use disorders early on should help to lower the proportion of children exposed to parental incarceration. For more on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Fragile Families and Juvenile Justice.


Obama's Education Initiative

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President Obama recently proposed a set of measures to make college more affordable. Some experts have argued for more innovation to drive down education costs, and the President is suggesting drastic changes to how the federal government promotes postsecondary education. Pending Congressional approval, federal financial aid would be partly linked to college rankings on measures like tuition, graduation rates, the percentage of lower-income students attending, and how much money graduates make. Some of this information is already available through an online college scorecard released earlier this year. The motivation for this approach is to encourage institutional innovation and allow students attending highly ranked colleges to receive better financial aid.

The President has also proposed other ideas, including experimenting with competency-based degrees that reflect students' knowledge more than the hours they've spent in the classroom, massive open online courses, three-year degree programs, performance-based financial aid, and more.

With changes likely coming to post-secondary education in the coming years, it is crucial to base policy decisions on the best research available. The Future of Children's issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States is a good place to start.

For example, while online learning is often believed to be an institutional cost-cutting measure, Bell and Federman explain that the evidence is inconclusive. There are significant start-up and recurrent technological support costs, yet implementation may result in savings in instructor compensation costs over time--particularly if institutions adopt more machine-guided courses. Research shows online learning can be effective for students, but we know little about how to do it right. One challenge colleges will likely face is a high dropout rate--especially among low income students without a fast Internet connection. In promoting innovation, the federal government will need to consider how to support technology delivery and use among disadvantaged students.

Obama has proposed performance-based financial aid. Dynarski and Scott-Clayton found that linking student financial aid to achievement can improve college performance and completion more than grants with no strings attached. This measure will likely be effective for enrolled students, but another issue is outreach to prospective students. For instance, many of them overestimate the cost of attending college by as much as three times, and a recent national survey of young adults found that fewer than three in ten individuals people without a college degree knew what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was. In revamping the financial aid program, policymakers should keep in mind that program complexity undermines aid's effectiveness. Aid needs to have simple, easy-to-understand eligibility rules and application procedures. To find more research and policy recommendations see the Future of Children's issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.

Minority Youth and Police Contact

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A recent article in The Atlantic points out that US incarceration rates are extremely high compared to those of other nations, especially for black men. But jails and prisons represent just one of many stages in the justice system where racial-ethnic disparity is a major problem, even for youth. Understanding why black and Latino adolescents experience greater risk of contact with the juvenile justice system is a difficult task. Future of Children author Alex Piquero argues that police play an important decision-making role in juvenile justice. Thus, careful examination of a youth's initial interaction with police may shed some light on the issue of minority contact.

 

One example of police contact is New York City's Stop-and-Frisk program. It has been practiced by the New York Police Department for decades, and many contend that it has helped keep guns off the street and lower the city's homicide rate. Some research shows evidence to support this argument, but the practice has nonetheless been met with heated debate and complaints of racial profiling. Indeed, a recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that more than 86 percent of police stops in 2012 were of blacks or Latinos.

 

To address the controversy surrounding Stop-and-Frisk, the City Council voted today to increase the oversight of police by establishing a new inspector general position. Yet some fear placing more limits on police will lead to an increase in crime rates. Piquero urges rigorous evaluation of new initiatives to curb disproportionate minority contact, with a focus on the best evidence for what works. Find his evidence-based suggestions in the Future of Children issue on Juvenile Justice.

 

Reforming College Remediation Programs

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Despite the rising percentage of working-age adults with a college degree, low college completion rates are still a major problem in the US and will have to rise much more to meet the demands of the future workforce. One problem, especially as workers have been displaced following the economic crisis, is that many students are arriving or returning to college underprepared for college work. Future of Children author Eric P. Bettinger, Angela Boatman, and Bridget Terry Long  report that the number of high school graduates who are ready for college-level material may be as low as one-third, with even lower levels among some nontraditional students.

 

Colleges have adjusted to the needs of incoming students by offering greater access to developmental or remedial courses, placing close to 40 percent of incoming freshmen into such courses. Structure and quality vary widely, and they have shown mixed results in their effectiveness. Some argue that too many students are placed in remedial courses unnecessarily, with high costs to institutions and the public. Evidence suggests that remedial courses may have positive effects for those who need them, but may actually have negative consequences for those who don't.


Bettinger, Boatman, and Long say one way colleges might improve the effectiveness of such programs is to reexamine placement procedures. For example, some states have begun offering placement exams to high school sophomores and juniors, as opposed to waiting until their college freshman year, to give students the opportunity to consult with parents, advisors, and educators about areas to focus on as they prepare for college. Some institutions are also making efforts to redesign their developmental programs, stressing remediation not as a curricular roadblock but as a means to launch students on to college-level work and give them the skills they need to succeed in a college major. For the best evidence for what works, read the latest research on this topic in the Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.

Is College a Good Investment?

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Many of this year's graduating high school seniors already have their eyes set on a specific university, but others wonder if pursuing a postsecondary degree is really worth the time and cost. The public continues to debate whether college is a good investment, but in a review of the latest research, Future of Children authors Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic find truth somewhere in the middle. They suggest that college can be a good investment if students prepare well and plan their studies and occupational pursuits carefully.

 

About 19 percent of 2011 high school graduates who took the ACT and were considered academically ready never enrolled in college or didn't return to college after the first year. Some of these students may have had better alternatives, but many may have been unprepared in nonacademic ways, such as lacking information about college expenses and financial aid. Andrea Venezia and Laura Jaeger write that many students may not know enough about themselves or their future goals to know which college would be best. In addition, students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds may feel obliged to attend a less-selective program that is closer to home, even though they qualify academically for more selective institutions. Evidence suggests that such students are less likely to graduate.

 

In helping students prepare for postsecondary education, educators and policymakers should move beyond an academic focus. Precollege programs across the country have begun to emphasize guiding students through the decision making process and other nonacademic preparation. College is a better investment when students are well informed about the expenses and financial aid options associated with specific programs at specific schools. For more on this topic, check out the Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.

From Prison to Postsecondary Education

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For every three people enrolled in a postsecondary institution, one person is under correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole, or on probation). College has been part of the American Dream for decades, but prisoners and parolees have for the most part been ignored in discussions on improving college enrollment and completion rates.

 

Most high school students would like to achieve some sort of postsecondary education, but many leave high school unprepared for college work. This may be especially true for young adults involved with the criminal justice system, who are more likely to be from poor, racial-ethnic minority, or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, education levels among the correctional population are much lower than among the general population. Some evidence suggests that increasing educational attainment among offenders may effectively reduce recidivism, but few studies have rigorously examined how postsecondary education affects the correctional population.

 

The Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, recently launched by the Vera Institute of Justice, "seeks to demonstrate that access to postsecondary education, combined with supportive reentry services, can increase educational credentials, reduce recidivism, and increase employability and earnings." The initiative will take place in three states over five years, and evaluations will be conducted by the RAND Corporation. At least one of the states, New Jersey, already has correctional postsecondary education programs in place, including Princeton University's Prison Teaching Initiative.


The Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education highlights the dramatic changes that are taking place in institutions of higher education and the students who attend them. As policymakers and educators make efforts to increase enrollment and improve program quality and completion, they should not forget the 7 million people under correctional supervision and what access to college for them might mean for their families and the nation as a whole.

Finding and Fixing Flaws in Financial Aid Policy

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Recent reports underscore what many argue are serious problems with current financial aid policy. Lawmakers debate about how to handle the soon-to-expire low interest rate on federal student loans. Meanwhile, public and private colleges and universities have awarded more merit-based than need-based scholarships in recent years, leaving low-income students to seek other options or saddle large amounts of debt. As noted by Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton, important questions to ask in addressing such issues are how effective current policies are in increasing student enrollment, performance, and completion, and what influence financial aid has on students' choices following graduation.

 

From their review of the research on financial aid, Dynarski and Scott-Clayton draw four important lessons for lawmakers, colleges, and universities. First, money matters. Financial aid increases student enrollment and may improve persistence and completion. Second, all aid programs are not equally effective. Studies show that personalized information and assistance in the financial aid process can increase college entry. Third, academic incentives are helpful. Achievement-based financial aid may increase college performance and completion rates. Finally, the design of student loans may be improved to be clearer about student risks and repayments upfront.

 

Financial aid had become increasingly important for college enrollment and completion. Lawmakers and college administrators should draw upon the best evidence as policy changes continue to develop. To review the latest evidence on postsecondary financial aid policy, see the newest issue of Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States.

College at a Crossroads

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As the latest issue of the Future of Children reports, higher education in the US is changing dramatically. On the one hand, access to college has expanded at a remarkable rate. On the other hand, scores of students are finishing high school unprepared for college work. Meanwhile, today's economy has left many public colleges and universities strapped for resources and unable to meet student demand. Thus, many students, particularly those from low-income families, are forced to either seek an alternative route or drop out.

 

One rapidly growing option for students is for-profit colleges. Also known as proprietary colleges, they often exist as large national chains led by online institutions. Future of Children authors David Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz explain that for-profit colleges seem to be most helpful when they offer short, well-defined programs offering a clear path to a specific occupation. While these programs have grown to efficiently meet student demand as public institutions have struggled, their students carry higher levels of debt and are more likely to default on loans. Indeed, much of the revenue these institutions rely on comes from federal student aid. Moreover, the rate of return for these students is lower. Upon leaving school, they are more likely to be unemployed and have lower earnings than students at other institutions.

 

To keep up with student demand, many state systems and community colleges have sought to expand access to online learning programs. The Babson Survey Research Group estimates that by 2010, 31 percent of college and university students were enrolled in at least one online course. As Marketplace reports, more selective institutions may also begin offering more options for online learning. Examining the research, Bradford Bell and Jessica Federman find that online learning can be an effective tool in higher education, insofar as it creates conditions that are conducive to learning specific content. See the latest research on e-learning in the new issue of the Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States.

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