The Forgotten Half – Who Are they Now?

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Betsy Brand, Executive Director

The importance of getting some education or training after high school has become widely accepted. Now, almost all high school students and their families set their sights on college or postsecondary studies – whether a four-year university, a two-year community college, a one-year industry-recognized certificate, an apprenticeship, or the military. Our society expects all young people to do something after high school, and policy and practice have supported college access and college-going intensely for the past 15 years.

As a result of this college-going focus, the number of young people attending college has increased, especially for those who were most at risk of not graduating high school: African Americans and Latinos. And while this is great news, unfortunately, it isn’t the end of the story.

A new report released by the William T. Grant Foundation, The New Forgotten Half and Research Directions to Support Them by James Rosenbaum, Caitlin Ahearn, and Janet Rosenbaum, seeks to understand the New Forgotten Half – those youth who have some college but no credential.

Rosenbaum and his co-authors seek to understand the status of these youth who find themselves shut out of good jobs in today’s college-for-all reality. The report describes how youth’s difficulties now often occur after entering college and highlights several key points:

  1. College access is no longer a problem, as 86% of high school graduates attend college in the eight years after high school. 37% of these youth attend community college and are the focus of the report.
  2. While many students plan to earn a bachelor’s degree, the reality is very different, and approximately only 33% of students get sub-BA credentials, either an associate’s degree or certificate.
  3. However, many college students get no credentials at all. 45% of community college students have no credentials eight years after high school.
  4. Although having “some college” led to an economic payoff for students in the 1970s, recent data from the 1990s suggests that this is no longer the case, especially for workers under age 30. Students who enroll in college, but complete no credentials have no better labor market outcomes in their early careers than high school graduates. And, interestingly, getting “some college” from a four-year college confers no more payoffs than getting “some college” from a two-year college.
  5. While we might worry that students with “some college” have inferior prior qualifications than those who graduate with a certificate, there is little evidence of that. Students with “some college” possess the attributes that would allow them to earn sub-BA credentials and get their labor market payoff.

The report identifies a series of barriers and challenges that young people face as they pursue a postsecondary degree or credential that might indicate why so many students leave college without a degree. Barriers include the lack of alignment between secondary and postsecondary education; the absence of clear pathways into postsecondary education and the workforce; and the lack of guidance and counseling available to young people to help them select a field of study, address course choice and sequence, and make sense of the financial aid puzzle.

The authors argue that much more time and attention should be focused on research questions such as how this group suffers in the labor market apart from missed earnings, why and how students attain credentials, what failure looks like, and how institutional procedures contribute to that failure. Another theme is that the strategies to help more young people earn a degree or certificate are multi-faceted, and cannot be addressed by a single strategy.

There is very little attention focused on preventing college dropouts and virtually none focused on those who have already dropped out. Given the thousands of young people who believed in the college-for-all approach but have been left stranded, it is time to shift our attention to The New Forgotten Half.

Betsy Brand is the Executive Director of the American Youth Policy Forum.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.