One Degree of Separation (Commentary)


Reprinted from ASCD.ORG - April, 2012

A Public Agenda survey of young adults sheds light on why so many don't finish college.

If you don't have as much education—if you don't have as much training in your area—you find yourself on the outside looking in." That's how one young man in a Washington, D.C., focus group described his employment prospects. He had completed high school and started college, but like roughly 6 in 10 students who begin postsecondary programs (Ruggles et al., 2010), he had never gotten his degree.

The focus group was part of a national research project conducted in 2011 by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. This study explored the attitudes and experiences of young Americans who do not graduate from either two-year or four-year college programs. Its center piece was a national, random-sample survey of 611 young adults ages 26 to 34.1

The Out-of-Reach College Diploma

The young man quoted earlier, who saw himself as being "on the outside looking in" in today's job market, clearly understood that a college degree can be a valuable asset. Yet like so many others whom we interviewed, he faced a trifecta of mutually reinforcing hurdles. Here are the chief findings from the research.

Opportunity Gaps

Most young Americans who don't graduate from college come from low-income, less well-educated families. Without more education, they are likely to continue that pattern and remain financially insecure throughout their lives.

The new Public Agenda research confirms what other studies have shown: Most young people who don't graduate from college were economically and educationally disadvantaged from the get-go. A College Board study (Baum & Ma, 2007) found that fewer than 50 percent of children from the United States' poorest families go on to college, compared with 80 percent of children from the most affluent families. In the 2011 Public Agenda survey, 51 percent of young adults without a college degree (compared with just 28 percent of those with a degree) told us that the highest education credential either of their parents had was a high school diploma. Twenty-two percent of young adults without a college degree reported that when they were younger, their family had "trouble getting by each month," compared with just 8 percent of young adults with a college degree.

Now that they have become adults, the non-college-completing respondents' answers to the survey suggest that many will continue to live economically precarious lives. Just 4 in 10 of those who have not graduated from college see their current job as a career, compared with more than 6 in 10 college graduates. Most (72.percent) work in jobs that pay by the hour, compared with only 33.percent of the college grads. They are much more likely to be low-wage earners: Nearly 3 in 10 earned less than $25,000 in 2009, whereas just 1 in 10 college graduates earned this little. As one young woman in a Fort Wayne, Indiana, focus group said, "My high school diploma is not doing anything for me these days."

Given their circumstances, most are not especially optimistic about the future. Just 36 percent of respondents who have not graduated from college consider it very likely that they will be financially secure in their lifetime. For college grads, the economy seems far more promising—more than half of this group (55 percent) believe it's very likely that their future will be economically secure.

College Awareness Gaps

Most young Americans who haven't graduated from college face a cluster of obstacles to continuing their schooling, including a lack of basic knowledge about the higher education system.

The Gallup Poll has been tracking Americans' views on the importance of college for decades. In 1978, just 36.percent of those polled considered going to college "very important." By 2010, that number had more than doubled to 75 percent (Bushaw & Lopez, 2010). And Public Agenda research shows that nearly all younger Americans, across all major racial and ethnic groups, see strong advantages in getting a college degree (Johnson, Duffett, & Ott, 2005).

Yet despite their interest in higher education, most young people who don't complete college are poorly informed about some of the essential steps. For example, in the 2011 survey, only 3 in 10 of them could identify the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the important federal form that all prospective college students must fill out and submit to gain access to federal, state, or institutional student financial aid (including Pell Grants, federal student loans, and federal work-study programs).

Moreover, multiple Public Agenda studies suggest that many young people are not getting good advice on choosing and entering postsecondary education programs. According to a 2009 Public Agenda survey, most young adults give their high school guidance counselors fair or poor ratings for their advice on getting financial aid for college—and that includes those who successfully graduate along with those who don't (Johnson, Rochkind, Ott, & DuPont, 2009). Most also give high school counselors low marks for their advice on thinking about careers and choosing schools. And without good counseling, the sheer number and variety of postsecondary options can be overwhelming, especially for young people and families who are not familiar with the system.

In Public Agenda focus groups with non-college-completing young adults, participants were given lists of higher education institutions in the immediate vicinity and asked to talk about them. Many were unsure which colleges were public and which were private, which were nonprofit and which were for-profit, and which offered four-year degrees, two-year degrees, or certification programs. When a previous Public Agenda study (Johnson et al., 2009) looked at the experiences of students who had dropped out of college, the results showed that the selection process was often uninformed and reliant on happenstance: 66 percent of the respondents told us that they had chosen their school because it was convenient to where they lived or worked. Among this group, location was the top reason given for selecting a college, outranking such explanations as having affordable tuition or offering a program leading to a specific job.

Economic Gaps

Many young people who haven't graduated worry about borrowing money for college. For them, the risk of being in debt often outweighs the potential reward of having a college diploma.

In the past few decades, the United States has benefited from an implicit social compact. Young people who invest time and money to get a college degree reap long-term rewards, even if they have to borrow money to do so. But results from the 2011 survey carry warning signs that this compact, which has benefited individuals and the economy alike, may be fraying: 9 in 10 young adults (both those with college degrees and those without) say that young people today have to borrow too much money to go to college.

At the same time, many young adults seem to be questioning just how much a typical four-year degree is worth in today's tough job market. The 2011 Public Agenda survey presented respondents with a list of 11 hypothetical people with varying levels of education, asking how likely each person was to enjoy a secure economic future. Young adults overall see only one of the 11 (a person who goes on to graduate school) as having dependably solid prospects. At the opposite end of the spectrum, hardly anyone believes that a person who drops out of high school is very likely to be financially secure (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Does a College Degree Guarantee Financial Security?

Percentage of respondents who say it is "very likely" the following people will be economically secure in their lifetime.

Respondents with a high school diploma only

Respondents with a postsecondary degree

Someone who graduates from college and then goes on to a graduate school like law school or a PhD program



You, personally



Someone who graduates high school and becomes an apprentice in a field such as carpentry or plumbing



Someone who has received an undergraduate college degree from your state college or university



Someone who enlists in the military



Someone whose parents are wealthy but who does not got to college after graduating high school



Someone who gets a one-year certification in information technology (IT) management from a technical school



Someone who receives an associate's degree at a local community college



Someone who graduates from high school and goes right to work but never takes any higher education courses



Someone who starts college at your state university but does not complete the degree



Someone who dropped out of high school



Source: Adapted from One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don't Finish College See Their Chances for Success (p. 12), by Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, & Amber Ott. New York: Public Agenda. Copyright 2011 by Public Agenda. Used by permission.

For the categories in between—people with four-year degrees, two-year degrees, technical certificates, and careers in the trades—the results were far more mixed. Among the group without a college degree, only 35 percent believe it is very likely that someone with a bachelor's degree from a state university will be financially secure in his or her lifetime. Similar numbers predict financial security for someone who doesn't go to college but apprentices in a trade, such as carpentry or plumbing (36 percent) or for someone who enlists in the military (33 percent). And on this topic at least, there is not much difference between the views of those who have graduated from college and those who haven't. Young college grads may be optimistic about their own chances in life (55 percent think it's very likely that they will be financially secure), but only 34 percent say the same about the typical person who has a bachelor's degree.

For young people who didn't graduate from college, however, the need to borrow money to go to school is the real kicker. Many are concerned about the prospect of borrowing money for college and then not earning enough to be able to pay it back. Only 37 percent (compared with 54 percent of the college graduates) strongly agree that even if someone has to take out a loan to go to college, it's worth it.

Because people in the non-college-completing group are more likely to come from low-income families, they often approach the issue of borrowing money for school with fears that students from more affluent families simply don't have. In the focus groups, many spoke about friends or relatives who had seen their homes foreclosed or were jobless for long periods of time. Some had borrowed money to start college, but because they hadn't graduated, they lived in the worst of both worlds, owing money for college loans but with no degree to show for it. Some were bitter about their decision to borrow. Nearly three-quarters of those who took out loans but didn't graduate (73 percent) said that their loans were only a fair or poor investment (compared with 23 percent of those who graduated).

Some young people in the focus groups seemed to be doing explicit calculations in their heads, weighing how much money they could earn (and how quickly) against the problem of having to pay back college loans. The comments of a young woman in Washington, D.C., were typical:

I've been out of school, and … it doesn't feel good to me to have to pay a loan back right now. If I do decide to go back to school, I want to be able to pay for school out-of-pocket, or get a grant, or something like that. I can no longer do another loan, so there's no need for me to look for school until I'm able to afford it.

The red flag for policymakers and educators working to increase college graduation rates is that the current financial aid system, which depends on students and their families seeing college loans as sensible investments, is beginning to seem like a risky bet, especially for young people at the lower end of the income scale. Although they can see the potential upside to taking out a loan for college, they can see genuine and serious downsides as well.

Some Fundamental Questions

Some of the implications of this research are quite specific. For example, it seems obvious that educators and policymakers need to ensure that all high school students and their families understand that they can gain access to many types of financial assistance by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If students don't even know what this form is, they're not likely to take advantage of it.

But the research raises broader questions that call for better analysis and more resourceful policy changes.

Why aren't more young people taking advantage of the financial aid system?

According to Public Agenda studies, those who start college but don't graduate are substantially less likely to take advantage of nearly every form of financial aid—grants, loans, scholarships, and so on. And because they tend to come from low-income backgrounds, their families are less able to help. We need to look carefully at our counseling and college entry systems to figure out what's causing the discrepancy here. Where are the gaps that cause these young people to miss out?

How are we going to fix the broken college counseling system at the high school level?

Most young adults, whether they complete college or not, say their high school counselors didn't give them the kind of advice on college that they needed. Guidance counselors are undeniably overburdened, and student-counselor ratios are far from ideal (Johnson et al., 2009). But we can't let ourselves off the hook on this one. It's time to get creative. The counseling system needs to reevaluate its standard practices and stretch itself beyond the customary half-hour meeting in senior year. We need to find ways for mentors, community groups, local employers, and local higher education institutions to lend a hand in this crucial mission.

How can we help part-time college students?

Public Agenda research among young people who drop out of college shows that many struggle to balance work and school. In fact, surveys show that the inability to maintain this juggling act is a leading cause of dropping out. Most of these young people say they cannot afford to attend school full-time, and having to work and earn an income is the number-one barrier that prevents students who have left college from returning. What actions would help them? Their top suggestions are changing policies to make part-time students eligible for more kinds of financial aid, having more classes on nights and weekends, and offering more child care. Are we working on these issues? What else can we do?

What do we mean by college, and what happens to Americans who don't go?

Finally, the research raises fundamental questions that have been circling beneath the surface for the last several years as the emphasis on college completion has heated up. U.S. policymakers have placed a needed emphasis on getting more people to complete college, and most economists say that achieving this goal is a must for the United States to thrive in the global economy. But we often glide over what we mean by "going to college." Are we just talking about two-year and four-year degrees? What about shorter-term professional certificates and on-the-job programs? Should we be offering more options for non-college-bound students that would help them improve their prospects? And given their real-life situations, what can we do to make new, alternative paths genuinely viable?

The Ball Is in Our Court

It's hardly news that the job prospects are bleak for the millions of young Americans who don't get college degrees, especially in a sluggish economy. But in doing the research, we were often struck by how much resilience and spunk many of the young people we interviewed showed. Whether they had graduated from college or not, most were thinking about ways to improve their economic prospects—promotions they might be eligible for, ways they might be able to go back to school at least part time, and so on. Few were bitter. Hardly any seemed to feel that society owed them something; most accepted their own responsibility for building a better future for themselves and their families.

But in a society that prides itself on giving everyone a chance at the American dream, leaders in education, philanthropy, and government have a responsibility as well. Are we willing to open up a path for all young people to succeed? And what will it take to create such a path?


Baum, S., & Ma, J. (2007). Education pays: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. (Trends in Higher Education Series). Washington, DC: College Board. Retrieved from

Bushaw, W. J., & Lopez, S. J. (2010). A time for change: The 42nd annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 8–26.

Johnson, J., Duffett, A., & Ott, A. (2005). Life after high school: Young people talk about their hopes and prospects. Washington, DC: Public Agenda. Retrieved from

Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., Ott, A., & Dupont, S. (2009). Can I get a little advice here? How an overstretched high school guidance system is undermining students' college aspirations. Washington, DC: Public Agenda. Retrieved from

Ruggles, S., Alexander, J. T., Genedek, K., Goeken, R., Schroeder, M. B., & Sobek, M. (2010). Integrated public use microdata series: Version 5.1. [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor]. Available:


1 A detailed summary of the study One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don't Finish College See Their Chances for Success (Public Agenda, 2011), including the full questionnaire and complete survey results, is available at The project was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jean Johnson is a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and author of You Can't Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

Copyright © 2012 by Jean Johnson

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