Young Adult Access to Higher Education: A Multidisciplinary Extension Approach

Young Adult Access to Higher Education: A Multidisciplinary Extension Approach

Harriet Shaklee
University of Idaho, Boise

Katie Hoffman
University of Idaho

Kathee Tifft
University of Idaho


Young adults have a big task ahead as they lay the economic foundation for family life. Higher education is increasingly important for financial independence for young adults, but rising costs have put it out of the reach of many. Extension programs in the fields of Family and Consumer Sciences, youth development, and community development have research and outreach programs relevant to the challenges young adults encounter in providing the financial security required for family life. The present paper explores strategies for Family and Consumer Sciences professionals to work with youth development and community development colleagues to develop Extension programs to support families and communities as youth make their transition into adulthood.


Young adults, family resource management, youth development, parenting, community development, higher education


These days it takes a sustained effort for young adults to attain independence. In adolescence, youth build a knowledge base, develop career plans, and pursue the education that may be required. First jobs can establish the direction and earning power of a lifetime of work. Young adults make financial decisions with long-term consequences as they fund educational, housing, health, and other needs. Romantic relationships over these years evolve into long-term commitments, including marriage and parenthood. All of these actions serve as critical junctures as young adults establish independent households.

Education is increasingly important for a secure financial future in the current knowledge-based economy. Fifty or sixty years ago, a high school diploma gave a young adult a solid foothold in the working world. Thriving manufacturing and natural resource sectors of the economy offered jobs with wages that could support a family. Workplace apprenticeships and military training allowed many to build work skills as they earned a living. Even high school dropouts could manage if they were dependable and learned on the job (Shaklee 2000).

However, education and income are closely tied today. In 1980, workers 25-34 years old with a college or graduate degree made $19,284 per year more than high school dropouts. By 2010 the same education gap conferred the substantially greater income benefit of $26,000 for women and $30,000 for men, in comparable (2010) dollars. These years were especially hard on less-educated young males, who actually lost earning power over the years, declining 25 percent to 28 percent for men with a high school diploma or less. Unemployment further compromises the financial viability of less-educated households. In 2010, young adult high school dropouts were three times as likely to be unemployed as the college educated (Demos 2011).

Young people are well aware of the importance of a college education and have high aspirations for educational attainment (Alexander, Bozick, and Entwisle 2008; Goyette 2008; Settersten 2012; Uno, Mortimer, Kim, and Vuolo 2010). However, higher education has become less affordable over the years, particularly for low-income families. Costs at public four-year universities consumed 39 percent of annual family income for the lowest quintile of earners in 1999, increasing to 55 percent by 2007 (see Table 1). Middle-income families have lost ground as well, with university costs increasing from 18 percent to 25 percent of income over the same time period. Public universities are easily affordable for those in the top quintile of earners, increasing only two percentage points to 9 percent in 2007. As Table 1 shows, expenses at two-year institutions are also on the rise, and are only marginally more affordable than those of four-year universities (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education 2008). Tuition costs have continued to rise through the recession, up 27 percent at public four-year colleges between 2007 and 2012 (Oliff, Palacios, Johnson, and Leachman 2013).

Congruent with these trends, college enrollment is strongly linked to family income, with 84 percent of high-income high school graduates enrolled in college the fall following high school graduation in 2009, compared to 67 percent of those from middle-income families, and a slim majority (55 percent) of those from low-income families (Demos 2011). Polls show that American adults increasingly regard a college degree as necessary for success (55 percent agreed in 2008, up from 31 percent in 2000), but two-thirds believe that college access is a problem (Immerwahr and Johnson 2009). Family strategies for funding higher education have changed with the continuing evolution of family resources and college costs (Sallie Mae 2013). Working one’s way through school has become less viable as the eroding value of entry level wages combines with rising educational costs to put aspiring college students in a bind. Students in 1981 with a full-time summer job at minimum wage could earn about two-thirds of full-time costs at a public university. However, by 2005 a minimum-wage worker needed to work full time all year to fund a year of public university education (Boushey 2005). In recent years, teenagers and young adults have endured the highest unemployment rate of any age group, further limiting opportunities to generate funds for post-high-school educational programs (Joint Economic Committee 2010).

In addition, grants for higher education cover a shrinking portion of costs in recent decades as values lag behind ever rising college expenses. To fill the funding gap, students take out sizeable government loans, as well as a growing trend toward private bank loans (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education 2008). Half of today’s student aid is in loans rather than grants, compared to the 1970s, when only one-fifth of aid was a loan to be repaid (Boushey 2005). Two-thirds of the 2011 graduating class had educational debt when they left school, at levels averaging $26,000 per borrower (Institute for College Access and Success 2012).

Economic independence is a significant developmental milestone for young adults – and a welcome transition for their parents as well. Higher education is increasingly important for earning an adequate income, but rising costs have put it out of reach for many. These current challenges of preparation for living-wage work have put many families in a bind. Extension has strong research and outreach traditions in several areas that can help families address these concerns.

Family and Consumer Sciences

The family is the fundamental building block of society, the first place children learn about roles and relationships, and the home base for their dreams and aspirations. Many aspects of family life facilitate children’s preparation for adult roles, including support for educational achievement and development of core life skills such as goal setting and attainment. Indeed, family adults offer children their most salient models of the nature of adulthood, its opportunities, and responsibilities. The field of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) addresses all of these aspects of preparation for adulthood, with particular relevance for research in parenting and family life, and in family resource management.

Studies of families demonstrate the power of parents to shape the life course of their children. Parents define family norms of achievement and help children develop the core skills required for educational success. Family routines such as shared meals, religious observances, and family activities build a structure of support for children as they progress toward independence. Positive parenting practices can cultivate the resilience children will need in the years ahead (Eisenberg et al. 2005; Prevatt 2003).

Research also demonstrates that financial well-being helps families attain these key goals for children, and that poverty is one of the greatest risk factors for children. Chronic financial stress threatens family functioning, increasing conflict between family adults. Discord between parents can disrupt parenting practices, with negative effects on children’s development. Economic shortfall at home also reduces children’s access to important developmental experiences, such as high quality child care, youth sports, or family visits to museums (Clarke-Stewart and Brentano 2006; Moore et al. 2009). Negative effects of family poverty on children are long term, extending into the next generation as those children become parents themselves (Neppl, Conger, Scaramella, and Onai 2009).

These negative effects of poverty on children underscore the importance of adequate preparation for living wage work as young adults establish the households in which the next generation will be raised. In the current knowledge-based economy, undereducated parents are likely to find themselves with insufficient income to provide their children the resources they need over the many years of their development.

Considering the close relevance of established Extension FCS programs to these family issues, Extension professionals can often accommodate concerns about higher education into ongoing programs. For example, basic parenting programs emphasizing positive discipline can incorporate messages about higher education opportunities for children, and how parenting practices can facilitate development of life skills their children will need for success throughout their education. Financial management programs can also feature college savings as an integral part of long-term financial planning for families. Family programs can target families with employed teens, assisting youth in saving for post-high-school training. Excellent publications are available in Extension on preparing for college, college expenses, loan programs, and savings strategies that Extension educators can use in developing programs to meet local needs (see or Successful Extension programs to support young adults in these critical transitions are being introduced at this time (e.g., Hines, Hansen, and Falen 2011; Royer, Jordan, and Harrison, 2005; Tifft 2013).

As is always the case, Extension programs centering on access to higher education would need to be sensitive to the varied cultural traditions and economic resources of families. Youth from limited-resource families may have fewer viable options for post-high-school education than their higher income peers. A program that emphasizes the variety of routes and programs that strengthen earning power will better serve all participants, including the youth who is less interested in the traditional classroom experience, the family that doubts they can afford to send their children to college, or the high school dropout parent who finds a college campus to be a foreign experience. Options such as military training, local apprenticeships, Job Corps, or employer-sponsored education may be the key to living-wage work for many young adults.

Considering their breadth of expertise and record of success in allied areas, Extension Family and Consumer Sciences professionals are in an excellent position to support families as they prepare their youth for the post-high-school training required in the current economy. Extension has the advantage of established links to research bases through campus connections, while the strong tradition of interdisciplinary work can broaden the research base for program development. Two allied fields particularly relevant to these concerns are youth development and community development.

Youth development

A core strategy for parents to nurture life-skill development for their children is engagement with youth development programs. Extension has long roots in youth development through 100 years of 4-H, with its proven record of training youth in the life skills required for adult roles. In recent years, 4-H programs have broadened their reach to a more diverse client base through day camp opportunities, projects in a day programming, and after school programs. Youth development programs such as 4-H serve a key role in teaching skills such as goal setting, planning, and teamwork required in adult work and family roles (Bunnell and Pate 2006; Hoffman 2011; Lerner, von Eye, Lerner, and Lewin-Bizan 2009).

Extension professionals concerned about the transition to adulthood for their area youth can reach out to their colleagues in youth development for possible shared programming. 4-H has an established record engaging youth and their families from the elementary years through high school. Entrepreneurial projects, leadership development, and consumer decision-making contests are just a few ways that FCS and 4-H can work together to engage young people in critical life skill development. Existing programs in all of these areas can incorporate information about the importance of higher education and how to prepare academically and financially to take advantage of the opportunity. A consistent message about post high school training introduced over several years at a developmentally appropriate level could provide youth and their families with a powerful tool in preparation for adult independence.

Community development

For families, higher education may be important for “launching” youth from the family home, but from the community perspective, the problem is one of workforce development. Communities thrive when they have a sound economic base, and a well-trained workforce is essential to that foundation. Training requirements for living-wage work have increased substantially in the current information-based economy. Contemporary career paths require the ability to function comfortably in a global and digital world. Young people entering employment today will have significant influence for many decades as they replace a retiring workforce and fill new jobs the future will bring. The existing model for corporate work is changing with young employees seeking innovative alternatives such as contingent work and entrepreneurism. Rather than becoming highly specialized in a specific skill set, young workers are focused on developing a range of employability skills that can be adapted to diverse workplaces (Dychtwald, Erickson, and Morison 2006).

Extension has a broad-based engagement in community development, including such diverse concerns as natural resources, entrepreneurship, and development of community amenities (United States Department of Agriculture 2013; Urbanowitz and Wilcox 2013). Workforce development issues bring the concerns of the business community into alignment with those of families preparing their young people for financial independence. Extension programs in human capital development work with youth and adults on core skills for an adaptive workforce and effective community leadership, such as creative thinking, problem-solving, collaborative decision-making, work/life balance, and team-based work.

Three disciplines meet

Family and Consumer Sciences, youth development, and community development are three Extension disciplines with broad concerns that intersect at the point of young adulthood. Children and teens build life skills through youth development programs, graduating into the responsibilities of adulthood. Young adults cultivate work and life skills to form the human capital base on which communities are built, and establish independent households in which new families will be formed. However, increasing educational requirements for living-wage work combine with rising costs of higher education to marginalize many young adults in this important process. Extension has an established record of addressing emerging economic concerns of families and communities (Bennett 2012).

Extension can bring together the considerable resources of Family and Consumer Sciences, youth development, and community development professionals to address the challenges these young adults face in laying the solid economic foundation required for families and communities to thrive. Multidisciplinary programs can take many forms depending on community needs. Core issues to address might include the following:

  • Family-based planning for higher education. Families can incorporate post-high-school education into family discussions and expectations from an early age. Challenges of funding higher education can be daunting. Families will benefit from Extension programs by establishing realistic expectations for those future costs and developing funding plans to meet their goals. These young families may be paying off school loans of their own at the same time as they save for their children’s educations. The declining availability of pensions will leave families funding their retirements over those same years. These major long-term expenses will be a challenge for most families to manage. Financial issues for families will include generating funds (e.g., parent and youth savings, loans vs. grants, government vs. private loans) as well as minimizing expenses (e.g., commuting to school, on-line options, job training and apprenticeships, community college; public vs. private college). The decades of experience of FCS professionals in family financial management will make this an especially good fit for FCS programming. 4-H will be an effective partner in reaching out to families with children and teens, and for orienting youth and their families to these concerns.
  • Higher education access and retention. Extension can build coalitions to increase access to training for community young people. College enrollment can be encouraged through local scholarships sponsored through businesses and civic organizations. One role for Extension may be to help the various area scholarship providers facilitate access to their funds through a common application form and due date. A comparison among the set of local scholarships can help build the workforce the community needs by ensuring funding to fill skill gaps (e.g., health care workers or skilled craftsmen), shifting priorities or attracting new funds as needed. Program completion is supported through scholarships that offer multi-year funding, while a mentorship program among students may be a critical retention resource for those leaving the community to pursue higher education. A coalition of education and business interests can cultivate learning opportunities at home, such as remote sites for universities, community college programs, apprenticeships, and certificate programs for the skilled trades. The extensive business contacts of Extension community development professionals will be especially useful in developing a cohesive system of community-based college support for youth. Older 4-H youth will be effective partners in fundraising for scholarships and in outreach to their peers as scholarship applicants.
  • Leadership and workplace skills for young adults. Young adults will benefit from the informal training that comes from full incorporation into community life. Mentorships with established professionals in the community can facilitate the careers of young adults, and well-structured volunteer programs can welcome young adults into the community leadership structure (Brennan, Barnett, and Baugh 2007; Petty et al. 2012). Occasional community-wide “welcome back” reunions can draw young adults back to home communities to explore opportunities there (e.g., Home Town Competitiveness 2013). Extension can serve as the coordinating force, identifying opportunities, developing coalitions, and convening meetings as required. This is an excellent opportunity for a partnership between 4-H programs and area businesses, building meaningful relationships between youth and potential employers, raising local business interest in the talents of area youth, and developing community leaders for the future.


Extension has many decades of experience in helping communities address needs as they evolve. Through a multi-disciplinary coalition of personnel in Family and Consumer Sciences, community development, and youth development, Extension can assist families and communities in meeting the needs of their youth in transition to adulthood.




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Table 1: Net college costs* as a percent of median family income.

[Table 1 summary of table: The percentage of income that families pay for public four-year colleges/universities and two-year colleges has grown between 1999 and 2008 at all income quintiles, but increases are greatest for the lowest income families.]

Table 1: Net College Costs* as a Percent of Median Family Income
Variables 1999 – 00 2007 – 08
At public four-year colleges and universities Lowest income quintile 39% 55%
Low-mid income quintile 23% 33%
Middle income quintile 18% 25%
Upper-mid income quintile 12% 16%
Highest income quintile 7% 9%
At public two-year colleges Lowest income quintile 40% 49%
Low-mid income quintile 22% 29%
Middle income quintile 15% 20%
Upper-mid income quintile 10% 13%
Highest income quintile 6% 7%

*Net college costs equal tuition, room, and board, minus financial aid.

Source: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2008.



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