Money & Policy

How to Help Kids Make the Leap From College to Work

Maximizing education while minimizing debt are keys to success

Eight years after the Great Recession hit, entering the adult world of work remains a perilous transition for young people.

The overall unemployment rate is now around 5 percent, but it’s close to 10 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds. College costs are higher than ever, and emerging adults and their parents are often daunted by the prospect of accumulating a mountain of debt on the way to a degree. The cost of not going to college is higher than ever, too: In the current “knowledge economy,” you have to have some kind of postsecondary education or training, or you face a lifetime of low wages and high unemployment.

The take-home message here is: plan carefully for the challenge of helping your kids get the education they need and make it a high priority.

What do parents need to know to help their emerging adults make a successful transition to work?

A recent national survey casts new light on many of these issues. The survey was sponsored by Clark University and directed by Jeffrey Arnett, who co-wrote this story and is a research professor of psychology at Clark. It included 1,000 young people ages 21 to 29 from regions, social class backgrounds and ethnicities that were representative of the American population. Questions focused on their views of education and the transition to work.

Good News and Bad News

The results of the survey contained lots of good news, such as:

  • Most feel prepared for their current job; 80 percent believe their education has prepared them either “very well” or “somewhat well” for the job they have now.
  • Their work ethic is strong; 89 percent affirm that “No matter what job I am doing, I try to do it as well as possible.”
  • They are reasonably satisfied with their work situation; 75 percent say their current job “is a job that I look forward to going to each day.”

Nonetheless, a number of findings from the survey give cause for concern:

  • Over half have received less education than they wanted, due to financial obstacles; 59 percent agreed that “I have not been able to find enough financial support to get the education I need.”
  • Student loan debt is a burden for many; of those who have attended college, 28 percent have student loan debt of at least $20,000.
  • Many are frustrated with their careers; 70 percent “have not made as much progress in my career as I would have hoped by now.”

Especially notable is the finding that nearly six in 10 do not have the financial resources to get the education they need. This represents an enormous waste of human potential, and shows that, as a society, we do not prepare young people adequately for the knowledge economy.

Perhaps we are still adjusting to these rapid economic changes, and only gradually growing aware that in the 21st century, postsecondary education and training is required for almost everyone, the way primary education became necessary in the 19th century and secondary education in the 20th century.

College Considerations

For parents, the take-home message here is: plan carefully for the challenge of helping your kids get the education they need and make it a high priority.

Yes, college is more expensive than it should be, but there are many resources, too, to help you through. For example, the Obama administration has created a new program that caps student loan payments at 10 percent of post-college income and erases them entirely after 20 years. Find out if your family qualifies.

Also, keep in mind the possibility of community college for the first two years on the way to a four-year degree, or for obtaining a credential in an area such as nursing or computer technology. Community colleges are still inexpensive and often provide an excellent education.

We would also advise: don’t get caught up in the college application frenzy.

All the research evidence of the past 20 years indicates that it matters a lot to a young person’s future to get a college education, but within a broad range, where you go does not matter. Don’t put your family 50-, 100- or 200-thousand dollars in debt in order to reach for a “big name” school.

Even $20,000 of student loan debt is a lot of money for emerging adults and their families. Nevertheless, it’s a great investment in your kids’ future. Do what you can, within reason, to help them get to the finish line.


Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett
By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett
Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett are co-authors of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Fishel is the author of four other books on families, including Sisters and Reunion. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University.

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