Category Archives: Public Policy

Examining For-Profit Colleges

My graduate school curriculum, in clinical social work, consistently emphasized “self-awareness,” or being conscious of one’s feelings, beliefs, biases, and overall state of being. I suppose a benefit of this training is that I’ve developed a habit of trying to recognize and challenge my own biases.

One bias I’ve had since childhood concerns the role of for-profit colleges. It likely originates from peers who made fun of certain teachers at our elementary school because they had attended for-profit universities. Back then, I thought they were institutions where students bought an easy low-quality degree. More recently, I’ve considered them overpriced, insufficiently regulated, and limited in educational effectiveness. Now an article by David J. Deming, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz in the Postsecondary Education issue of the Future of Children that has given me a more nuanced view.

They explain that for-profit colleges have seen a large increase in enrollment during the past fifteen years. Possible explanations for this include overcrowding at community colleges, aggressive marketing strategies, a more career-oriented curriculum, and the ability to quickly expand program capacity for high-demand occupations. Importantly, they enroll a disproportionately high share of disadvantaged and minority students, and those who are less prepared for college.

To me, this doesn’t sound too bad. It seems that they help meet the demand for higher education, especially among the disadvantaged, and might even be considered innovative. But there’s more to the story.

Graduates of for-profit schools tend to have higher loan balances and default rates than comparable students at nonprofit schools, have lower earnings on average, are less likely to be employed six years after initial enrollment, and are less likely to believe their education was worth the cost. Additionally, a very high portion of for-profit revenue (sometimes close to 90%) is drawn from students’ federal financial aid. Partially due to the high cost to taxpayers and students, the federal government recently proposed stricter “gainful employment” regulations that could put schools with poor outcomes at risk of losing federal aid eligibility. If the regulations are implemented, some schools will likely need to restructure their programing to stay in business.

Deming and colleagues come to several conclusions. First, for-profits schools seem necessary to help meet the growing demand for higher education. Second, for-profit colleges generally work best with short, well-defined programs that are occupation-oriented. Finally, since longer programs have the potential to amount to great costs to students, they need to be well regulated. The authors recommend requiring counseling by an independent third party to ensure that prospective students understand financial aid packages and accompanying obligations, and to restrain aggressive and misleading recruitment practices.

Bias confirmed? Partially, since for-profit colleges tend to be more expensive and seem to need more regulation to help prevent negative outcomes. However, it was unfair of me to believe these were all low-quality degrees, especially given the strengths of for-profit education.

Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse

Chances are that you or someone you know has been sexually abused. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, writes in the Future of Children that approximately 3% of children are likely victimized in a single year, and 25-40% of women and 8-13% of men report a history of sexual abuse. Many potentially negative consequences can result from this type of abuse; thus, prevention and treatment should be a matter of public policy.

What type of person sexually abuses a child? The answer might not be what you think. Finkelhor explains that only 14% of sexual abuse victims who come to law enforcement attention are victimized by a stranger, while 26% are victimized by a family member and 60% are abused by someone in the family’s social network. And it’s not just adults who perpetrate–about a third of abusers are juveniles. Also, only a small percentage of new offenders have a prior record. Luckily, many abusers are relatively low-risk for re-offending once caught.

Some of these figures might seem frightening to parents who feel a lack of control over their children’s safety. However, parents can use proactive strategies to protect their children, and if abuse happens, it should be reported promptly (regardless of who the perpetrator is) and followed immediately by professional treatment for victims. Having practiced social work with youth offenders and victims and their families, I understand it can sometimes be difficult to take the matter outside the family, but it really is in everyone’s best interest.

Policy makers have tried to alleviate the problem by focusing primarily on offender management (for example, registering sex offenders, conducting background employment checks, controlling where offenders can live, and imposing longer prison sentences) and school-based educational programs (for example, teaching children how to identify dangerous situations, refuse an abuser’s approach, and summon help). Surprisingly, there is little evidence to suggest that offender management prevents sexual abuse, despite its popularity. In addition to more research into these practices, Finkelhor recommends using law enforcement resources to catch more undetected offenders and concentrating intensive management efforts on those at highest risk to re-offend. School-based programs, on the other hand, have been shown to achieve some of their goals, but studies are inconclusive about whether these programs actually reduce victimization. For more information on how to prevent child abuse, see the Future of Children issue on Preventing Child Maltreatment.

Making Sense of International Comparisons of Students

We are regularly exposed to news reports about the results of international tests, in which children’s scores in the United States lag behind those of their peers in many other nations in math, reading, and science. The results spur public debate as to why the nation’s educational system is “mediocre” or why test results could be meaningless altogether–for instance, China, with very high rankings, reports scores only from the wealthy cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Is it even worth participating in these tests? What can they tell us, if anything, about America’s educational system and how to make it better?

In the Future of Children, Daniel Koretz weighs in with some answers. He stresses that these tests do not provide unambiguous information about the effectiveness of American high schools compared to those of other nations. For example, participant countries vary by year, making it difficult to compare U.S. students with an international average, and the varying curriculums and complex sampling designs also pose problems.

Despite their many limitations, Koretz argues there is value in these tests. In using the results, we should consider multiple tests rather than a single source. We should ignore small differences between countries and consider comparing the U.S. to nations that are similar, such as Australia or Canada, or that are particularly high-achieving. Perhaps the most important benefit of testing is the numerous hypotheses that result about what impedes or improves student performance, which can then be tested and evaluated.

While there are certainly more important indicators of student success (e.g., graduation rates, college degrees), test scores offer useful information, which should be considered but not relied on solely. To learn more about how to make sense of test scores and how to improve the educational system, see the Future of Children issue on America’s High Schools.

An Invisible Division

One of the largest subcultures in America is also one of the least visible. Military children and families are everywhere–not just on or near installations. To illustrate, only a handful of counties across the continental United States had not sent Guard and Reserve members to Iraq or Afghanistan by 2011. Even though these families are everywhere, they often do not stand out. Military children do not wear uniforms. We need to develop a community-based model, to increase resilience and minimize health risks among military children.

In the Future of Children, Harold Kudler and Colonel Rebecca I. Porter (U.S. Army) explain that communities of care “extend the responsibility for developing [an] environment of respect and positive expectations from the clinic to the community.” With a shortage of mental health professionals, especially in rural areas, it is imperative to intervene at the community level. In order to make communities of care happen, the first step is identification–every clinical program should routinely ask everyone who enters its system, “Have you or has someone close to you served in the military?”, and all clinical staff should be taught about military culture and deployment mental health. A next step is to flag military family status in education, employment, and medical records so that it is not overlooked and tailored support can be offered across time. Also, health-care programs and insurance companies could offer incentives to providers to take military history as a way to improve health outcomes and perhaps reduce costs through better treatment. Additionally, clinical programs competent in working with military families should register their names and basic information in the National Resource Directory to help increase accessibility to community resources.

As Kudler and Porter note, perhaps “the secret of creating communities of care for military children is creating communities that care about military children.” To learn more see the Future of Children issue on Military Children and Families.

Evidence-Based Programs for Military Children

Given the sacrifices that military personnel make, children of military families deserve to have policies and support programs designed to fit their needs. Notable examples include subsidized childcare, deployment assistance, moving assistance, child development programs, and community awareness initiatives that train and support communities in their efforts to improve the lives of military infants and toddlers. Unfortunately, many current programs for military children were implemented quickly, at a time of pressing need; thus, few are based on scientific evidence of what works, and even fewer have been evaluated for their effectiveness.

In the newly released Military Children and Families issue of the Future of Children, an overarching theme is the need for better research about military families and the programs intended to help them. Despite the overall lack of evidence-based programs, there are important directions we can take to implement the principles of best practice to improve programming.

For example, Molly Clever and David R. Segal show that military families are diverse by factors such as age, race, ethnicity, and cultural background. Rather than compelling these families to fit into a fixed and rigidly structured set of programs, we should make support programs accessible to families of all backgrounds and at all stages of life. This is challenging, but programs designed for diverse non-military families have been well researched and evaluated, and this research should help in developing flexible and adaptive programs and policies.

We can also learn from the strengths of programs that appear to be working. Major Latosha Floyd and Deborah A. Phillips recount how the military’s child-care program went from a system in distress to a model for the nation, directly serving or subsidizing care for 200,000 children every day. They tell how the success of this program rests on four pillars–military certification, national accreditation, minimum standards in hiring, and a pay scale that reduces staff turnover.

As we learn from the strengths of good programs, and as we rigorously evaluate as many programs as we can, we will be able to better support military children and families by implementing the best services possible. For more information, see the Future of Children issue on Military Children and Families.

Caregivers and Baby Boomers

According to a new report by the AARP Public Policy Institute, in 2010, each person aged 80 or older had more than 7 potential family caregivers aged 45-64. However, as the oldest baby boomers begin to retire, America is entering a period of transition in which this ratio will decrease sharply, hitting 4.1 by 2030 and continuing downward to 2.9 by 2050. This projection is worrisome because family caregivers provide the majority of long-term care for older adults. Caregivers are usually women, and most are employed. They spend an average of 20 hours per week providing care, and over one-third have children or grandchildren under 18 living at home.

Indeed, the emotional, relational, financial, and time burdens can be difficult for caregivers to manage–especially employed caregivers. In the Future of Children, authors Ann Bookman and Delia Kimbrel say that adults may actually spend more time caring for their parents than they did caring for their children. Smaller families, and the fact that potential caregivers live further away than in the past, make it more challenging to care for older family members. To care for the growing elderly population and ease the burden on caregivers, Bookman and Kimbrel argue for better coordination among health-care providers, nongovernmental community-based service providers, employers, government, families, and the elderly themselves. They especially recommend that employers offer more flexible work arrangements for caregivers, such as part-time work, paid leave, paid sick days, and other “elder-friendly” benefits. They also remind us that “today’s children will be the workers, citizens, and family caregivers who will care for the growing U.S. elderly population tomorrow. Focusing on children’s healthy development and education will build their capacity to provide supportive care for the elders of future generations.” For more information see the Future of Children issue on Work and Family.

Reducing the Risk of Parental Incarceration

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.

Family Relationships Following the Great Recession

Research from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study suggests that stress or uncertainty about external circumstances can impact family relationships. One recent study by Dohoon Lee, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Irwin Garfinkel finds that mothers used more harsh parenting practices, such as corporal punishment, following the Great Recession. Moreover, macroeconomic conditions like consumer sentiment (that is, how people feel generally about the economy), rather than actual conditions (for example, local unemployment rate), are associated with harsh parenting.

Findings from another study suggest that macroeconomic stress has caused couples to delay or forego separation or divorce, especially among those hardest hit by the recession. Based on research presented in the Future of Children suggesting positive outcomes of marriage for children, such a finding could have good implications for low-conflict families but serious consequences for families experiencing violence or abuse.

Future of Children authors Philip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Virginia Knox explain that some low-income family intervention programs have begun to address how parents and partners can cope with the stress and uncertainty caused by external circumstances such as a dragging economy. The authors highlight one such program that has had encouraging early results. Participants in the Supporting Healthy Marriage project, a yearlong marriage and relationship education program for couples with children, report less abuse, more positive communication, and greater marital happiness than control-group counterparts.

With the proportion of children born to unmarried mothers at more than 40 percent, similar programs for unmarried couples with children are being evaluated. One such project called Building Strong Families found little evidence of relationship quality improvement among participants, but Cowan and colleagues indicate that more analyses are needed to understand these findings. Research on the challenges that unmarried families face can be found in the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families. Also see our issue The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies.

Children and Immigration Reform

Recently, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill and President Obama has urged the House to do the same. Such a measure would likely provide a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants. The House is debating whether the possibility of citizenship might apply only to those who were brought illegally as children and not to those who crossed the border as adults, meaning parents might face a greater risk of deportation than their children.

Immigration reform would certainly affect many families, especially the 5 million children who have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant. As Future of Children authors Nancy S. Landale, Kevin J. A. Thomas, and Jennifer Van Hook write, the number of unauthorized immigrants arrested at workplaces has increased, and the children related to those who are arrested often experience family separation and material hardship. If deportations increase, more children could find themselves in this situation.

Such experiences affect children’s psychological well-being. Children in families directly affected by immigration enforcement via workplace raids tend to feel abandonment, fear, social isolation, and anger. Children and parents may also experience chronic stress. To learn more about the challenges that immigrant children and their families face, along with pertinent policy recommendations, see the Future of Children issue on Immigrant Children.

Minority Youth and Police Contact

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.