Author Archives: Wade Jacobsen

Complex College Choices in a Changing Economic Climate

In his first term, President Obama set a goal that the US would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. However, choosing whether to go to college, which school is best and how much college to peruse has become increasingly complex for students and families. In the newest issue of the Future of Children, authors Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic write that in today’s economy, college tuition rates are higher than ever, student debt is larger than ever, and many students take longer than ever to graduate. Meanwhile, technology is changing the playing field at a rapid pace. Some have to choose between an elite school and a more affordable one, while others seek online flexibility as they juggle work and family.

The New York Times reports that parents often see top-tier universities as the way to give their children the best chance at success, but little evidence has demonstrated a link between college selectivity and later earnings. Oreopoulos and Petronijevic find that earnings potential varies with college major and is largest for those with post-graduate degrees. Moreover, community college programs may be best for students who don’t want to or can’t complete a four-year degree. They stress that students and their families need help to navigate the financial aid and college decision process, taking into account the likelihood of completion and expected costs and debts. “As difficult as it is, completing such an assessment before reaching a decision is key to making the most out of college.”

An increasingly relevant factor in college decisions is the availability of online education. The New York Times highlights the efforts of many institutions to provide online learning opportunities in order to address problems of limited seating due to state budget cuts, as well as a high demand for remedial coursework for new undergraduates. Future of Children authors Bradford Bell and Jessica Federman find that online college programs can be an effective alternative to traditional classroom teaching if they are rich in content and have a high level of interactivity. Experimental research should continue to investigate how these attributes influence different types of learning.

For more discussion on this topic, check out the latest issue of the Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States. Also see the issues Opportunity in America, America’s High Schools and Transition to Adulthood.

Literacy for Incarcerated Fathers and Their Children

Last week’s launching of the Digital Public Library of America shows that the landscape of literacy in the US is changing. As technology advances rapidly, educators and researchers should seek new ways to use it effectively, both in school and in the home, to improve literacy among children and families. Future of Children author Jane Waldfogel explains that parents play a major role in children’s literacy both early on and throughout the school years. The value that parents place on reading and the degree to which they provide reading materials can make the home environment more or less conducive to literacy. Reading with children and discussing what they are reading are particularly helpful. Parents also boost literacy when they monitor and help with schoolwork, participate at school, and encourage children to read during the summer.

Since the Prison Boom, many parents – especially fathers – have been locked up and thus unable to provide such support to their children, placing these children at an even greater disadvantage. However, research by Future of Children author Kathryn Edin and colleagues shows that for some fathers, particularly those with severe substance use problems, prison may serve as a time to rehabilitate and even rebuild bonds with children. A crucial part of this process is education; the U.S. Department of Education reports, “To the extent that prisons are intended as venues for rehabilitation, education has an important role in prison operations. Today, over 90 percent of the federal and state prisons and over 80 percent of private prisons offer some form of educational programs to inmates.” The hope is that, as these fathers are released, the education they received while incarcerated will not only make them more employable, but will give them necessary tools to create favorable environments for their children’s literacy.

Supporting men and fathers in this reentry process is a major focus of collaborations between prison and public libraries, which some argue can help ex-offender fathers to overcome information gaps, such as the digital divide. As WNYC reports, many fathers being released from prison will need to catch up on technology for job seeking and for day-to-day life. In addition, these fathers will not be equipped to give their children adequate opportunities to learn to use technology. Gina Biancarosa and Gina Griffiths find that disadvantaged students are less likely to use technology in sophisticated ways or with adult guidance. To help narrow the gap, they argue that schools should choose and incorporate evidence-based tools for literacy instruction and systematic support for effective use of e-reading technology. One could ask if library partnerships and other community efforts targeting reentering parents could do the same. For more on this topic see the Future of Children issues on Literacy Challenges and Fragile Families.

Involving Parents in Childhood Obesity

Obesity levels have more than doubled among children and tripled among teens in the past three decades. Today, CDC estimates that 12.5 million kids are obese – nearly 17 percent of children and adolescents in the US. Future of Children author Stephen R. Daniels reports that obesity has serious consequences for children and teens, including health conditions that were previously considered adult-only issues: high blood pressure, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, hardening of the arteries, and type 2 diabetes, to name a few.

In the Future of Children, author Christina Paxson and colleagues explain that that while researchers have proposed many environmental and policy solutions to the obesity problem, such as regulating the sale of soda in schools or building more sidewalks, several strategies are more promising for the short term. These include in-school, after-school, and child-care initiatives, as well as improving pediatric care. The most effective strategies will involve parents, who play a significant role in obesity prevention from gestation and infancy through adolescence.

Time Magazine recently highlighted a five-month intervention program in which parents and children learned about healthy eating and exercise, and parents learned how to set limits and teach their children to monitor their own eating. In addition, these families met for 20 minutes with their physician every two weeks to be weighed and receive advice and reading material. Results showed significant weight loss in the treatment group, while the control group continued to gain weight.

Future of Children author Ana C. Lindsay and colleagues explain, “By better understanding their own role in influencing their child’s dietary practices, physical activity, sedentary behaviors, and ultimately weight status, parents can learn how to create a healthful nutrition environment in their home, provide opportunities for physical activity, discourage sedentary behaviors such as TV viewing, and serve as role models themselves.” For more information on research-based childhood obesity intervention, see the Future of Children issue on Childhood Obesity.

College-Bound Children of Immigrants

Though the nation’s financial woes and other recent changes have left net Mexican migration to the US at around zero, past decades have seen rapid growth in the population of immigrants, including children and adolescents who are now approaching adulthood. Of the more than 68 million young adults in the US in 2010, about 30 percent were foreign-born or had foreign-born parents. Moreover, young adults made up about half of the estimated 11.6 million undocumented immigrants in 2008.

As these young people prepare to enter the labor market, those who are undocumented often experience greater adversity, even though many have grown up on US soil. Future of Children author Marcelo Suarez-Orozco tells NBC Latino that immigrant parents are motivated to offer their children better opportunities, but those who are undocumented are blocked from access to supports and services that children could benefit from. For example, Silvia Rodriguez, who immigrated to the US with her parents at age two, learned what it meant to be undocumented as she prepared for college. “When it came time to apply for scholarships and financial aid, that was the moment it really, really hit me,” she said.

Future of Children authors Robert T. Teranishi, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco argue that increasing immigrant children’s educational attainment and economic productivity should be a national priority and that community colleges are an important means to this goal. They suggest outreach programs to help prospective students learn about the application and financial aid processes. They also argue that researchers and community colleges should collaborate to find and implement the most effective strategies for intervention programs. For the latest research on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Immigrant Children and the Transition to Adulthood.

To Reduce Delinquency, Prevention is Key

As a New York Times editorial noted recently, although the number of incarcerated juveniles is at a 35-year low, the US continues to lead developed nations in the number of young people it locks up. Incarceration has serious consequences for ex-offenders, including poorer health, lower earnings, and family breakup; thus many states have begun investing in more effective strategies to reduce delinquency. As Peter Greenwood explains in the Future of Children, “The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place.”

The Future of Children says that the best evidence points to early intervention, including home-visiting programs aimed at pregnant teens and their at-risk infants, early education programs for disadvantaged young children, and school-based initiatives to prevent drug use and dropping out. Moreover, community-based programs that focus on the family and improving parenting skills have been shown to effectively deter young offenders from future involvement with the justice system.

In the Washington Post this week, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins urged politicians, educators, community leaders, ministers and parents to teach young people that the decisions they make as they transition to adults will greatly influence their circumstances later in life. He cited research showing that of US adults who finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children, only about 2 percent live in poverty and about three quarters have joined the middle class. Thus, investing more in prevention than incarceration should more effectively reduce delinquency and improve life outcomes for young adults. See the Future of Children issues on Juvenile Justice, Fragile Families, and School Readiness to learn more about this topic.

ADHD and the Transition to Adulthood

Future of Children researchers Janet Currie and Robert Kahn find that attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is almost three times more likely than asthma to contribute to childhood disability. Indeed, more than one in five parents of a child with a disability report that ADHD is an underlying condition. However, Neal Halfon and colleagues note that ADHD is not limited to children, and recent studies underline its growing prevalence across the lifespan.

Recently, Fox News highlighted findings of the first population-based study to follow children with ADHD into adulthood. The Mayo Clinic study found that nearly a third of children diagnosed with the disorder still had ADHD by age 27. Furthermore, among those who still had the disorder as adults, 81 percent also had at least one other psychiatric disorder. Some research has suggested that children with ADHD may be somewhat more likely to experience setbacks such as repeating a grade or going to prison.

These findings have important implications for practitioners and policymakers who are concerned with children’s mental health. Future of Children authors Liam Delaney and James P. Smith report that although we have strong evidence that medication combined with behavioral interventions can alleviate some symptoms of ADHD, we know little about the long-term consequences. For vulnerable populations making the transition to adulthood, including children with mental health problems, D. Wayne Osgood and colleagues recommend strengthening programs and improving existing systems of care for children and adolescents. See the Future of Children issues on Children with Disabilities and the Transition to Adulthood for more information.

Children and the Prison Boom: Finding Solutions

The era of skyrocketing US incarceration rates since the 1970s has been dubbed the “Prison Boom,” and rightfully so. Future of Children authors Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western report a fivefold rise, from about 100 to 500 prisoners for every 100,000 people. A major concern for policymakers and children’s advocates is that many of those incarcerated are parents. Among African American children who grew up during the Prison Boom, one in four had a parent (most often a father) incarcerated at some point during childhood.

As the New York Times wrote recently, families and children with an incarcerated father can face considerable hardship, apart from the challenges associated with the father’s criminality. While identifying a causal relationship between incarceration and various child and family outcomes is difficult, quality research continues to develop in this area. Recent studies find a link to child behavioral problems and school readiness, as well as housing insecurity and homelessness.

There is much discussion about ways to reduce the prison population, from increasing the number of police on the streets, to drug-treatment or faith-based programs. Based on the best research available, the Future of Children’s policy recommendations focus on drug offenders and parole violators. Solutions include intensive community supervision, drug treatment when necessary, and more effective responses to parole violation. The White House highlights one program recommended by Wildeman and Western. Project HOPE in Hawaii significantly reduced drug use and other offenses by administering swift, certain, but very short jail stays to probation violators.

As local, state, and federal leaders seek more effective alternatives to long jail and prison sentences, they should look to quality research to guide policy. See the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families for more information on this topic.

High-Quality Early Education

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on states to help him make high-quality preschool available to every child in the US. He said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

A recent New York Times Op-Ed by David Brooks explains that the existing federal preschool program, Head Start, has yielded null or weak results since its start in the 1960s. But several states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, and New Jersey, have tried in recent years to establish more effective alternatives, with higher performance standards and better-trained teachers.

Although these state programs are in their early stages, studies confirm that high-quality early education can improve literacy (see the Future of Children issue on Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-first Century) and even close racial-ethnic gaps in school readiness. In the Future of Children issue on School Readiness, experts describe what effective programs should look like. First, they should have a high-quality education component, meaning well-trained teachers, a high teacher-student ratio, and a rigorous curriculum. Second, they should train teachers to identify children with behavioral or health problems to help them receive the care they need. Third, they should emphasize the role of parents in student learning. Finally, they should have strong ties to kindergarten programs to ensure that children make a smooth transition to elementary school.

As states act on President Obama’s call, the implementation and practice of these programs should be based on the best evidence to date. Visit the Future of Children website for a summary of research findings and policy recommendations.

The Transition to Adulthood for Children with Disabilities

Prior Future of Children research underlines the challenges faced by youth approaching adulthood, particularly among those from disadvantaged backgrounds with no postsecondary education on the horizon. Even thornier is the pathway to adulthood for youth from more vulnerable populations such as those challenged with a chronic illness, mental health issues, or physical disabilities. A recent study highlighted by CBS News indicates that one in three young adults with autism has completed no college or technical schooling and has no paid work experience seven years after graduating high school. This is urgent news considering that roughly half a million autistic children will be reaching adulthood in the next ten years.

Recognizing the importance of education for children with disabilities before and throughout the transition to adulthood, the United States has made many advances in special education over the past few decades. The special education system gives children with disabilities greater access to public education and provides an infrastructure for their schooling. Moreover, some services even extend through early adulthood, which is more than can be said for other vulnerable populations. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that secondary schools develop individualized transition plans including long-term education goals, vocational training, and general life skills.

Despite these advancements in special education, Laudan Aron and Pamela Loprest indicate in their chapter Disability and the Education System, that many problems remain, including the over- and under-identification of some subgroups of students, delays in providing service to students, as well as bureaucratic and financial barriers that often complicate effective service provision. In addition, some needed services may not be available when children have reached adulthood. A recent article in US News and World Report indicates that families of children with autism often describe leaving high school as “falling off a cliff” because of the lack of services for adults on the autism spectrum.

Providing these children with needed support before and after the transition to adulthood has substantial immediate and long-term economic costs and benefits. A recent article in CNN Health reports that out-of-pocket medical expenses are growing fastest among Americans 18 years old and younger. The Future of Children volume, Children with Disabilities indicates that these expenses are higher among families caring for a child with a special health care need. In their chapter, The Economic Costs of Childhood Disability, Mark Stabile and Sara Allin suggest that due to these high costs to children and families, the benefits of effective interventions to prevent and reduce childhood disability might well outweigh the societal costs of such programs.

On May 23, 2012, the Anderson Center for Autism hosted an event for more than 350 practitioners and parents, which featured research from the Future of Children’s Children with Disabilities volume, and discussed effective early interventions for children with disabilities. For more discussion on evidence-based policies and intervention programs for special needs children and those making the transition to adulthood, see the Future of Children volumes Children with Disabilities and Transition to Adulthood. Add your voice by commenting on the Future of Children blog.

Fragile Families Research at PAA 2012

This week, demographers from around the world are gathering in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA), to discuss their research findings on issues related to migration, health, and population wellbeing. Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing is presenting three main initiatives at the conference: The Future of Children, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and the Princeton Global Network and Child Migration. The Future of Children published a volume on Fragile Families in fall 2010 and researchers continue to build on these findings using the Fragile Families Study data. One example of such work being presented at PAA is the investigation of the role of genes in explaining child behavior outcomes.

In the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families, Jane Waldfogel, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn suggest that several factors play important roles in explaining why children in families with unmarried parents may have poorer outcomes than those of two married parents. These likely include parental resources, parent relationship quality, parenting quality, parental mental health, and father involvement. Another key element that should be considered is family instability, which refers to whether children grow up with the same parent(s) that were present at birth and tends to be higher among unmarried parents. It is assumed that children will have more positive behavioral outcomes when there are fewer disruptions or new partners entering and exiting the household, but researchers continue to investigate this hypothesis.

One element that has recently gained attention regarding its influence on family stability and child outcomes is genes. To examine the role of genes in child behavior and wellbeing, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an ongoing birth cohort study of about 5,000 children and their parents, the majority of whom are unmarried, collected DNA samples from the children and their mothers around the time of the child’s ninth birthday. These genetic data, which will made available through a contract process this fall, are being analyzed with respect to their role in the relationship between family stability and child behavioral outcomes. Early analyses find evidence that genes moderate the relationship between family instability and children’s prosocial behavior. As presented at the Population Association of America, authors Colter Mitchell, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn find evidence that for some genotypes, larger increases in prosocial behavior occur among cases in which a non-resident biological father enters the household and larger decreases in prosocial behavior in cases in which the biological father exits the household.

As indicated in the Future of Children, there are several observable factors that likely explain why children with unmarried parents often fare worse than those of two-parent families, and the link between family instability and genes is only one component of this complex issue. Future research should provide further insight into the role of these and other elements. More literature on the impact of family structure and instability can be found in the Future of Children volumes on Fragile Families and Marriage and Child Wellbeing. Visit the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing website or email for information on the Study and updates on the new genetic data. Also, check out for more publications on child wellbeing.