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National Research Groups Call for Focus on Transition to Adulthood

Educators and researchers know that students at the start of their school career are in a critical phase of development. Now, a new report by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council argues that students at the other end of their K-12 academic careers face just as critical a developmental window.

"Adolescents do not suddenly stop developing when they turn 18; their brains are still maturing," said Richard J. Bonnie, a professor of medicine and law and director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who chaired the committee that wrote the report. "Also, during this critical period, young adults face great challenges that provide less latitude for failure. Essentially, young adults who are not keeping up will have a harder time catching up."  

To be clear, young adults are cognitively more mature than adolescents; they think through difficult decisions more and are more conscious of consequences to bad decisions. But in several areas, the report notes that several risky behaviors are at their most prevalent from ages 18 to 26—not adolescence.Obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and hospitalizations and deaths from automobile accidents all peak in young adulthood, and several types of mental illness, including schizophrenia, also often begin or become more severe in early adulthood.

In a way, one of the report's key findings codifies the perennial cry of the older generation: It was different back in my day: 

"In previous generations, the path for most young adults was predictable: graduate from high school, enter college or the workforce, leave home, find a spouse, and start a family. While there were always exceptions, these established milestones provided structure and direction for young adults as they assumed adult responsibilities. Today, those pathways are considerably less predictable, often extended, and sometimes significantly more challenging."

The report repeatedly looks to educational attainment as a key switch point to put students on a path to successful adulthood or not. Those with college degrees have a better chance of having a stable job and relationship, and are less likely to have children "before gaining the skills and income to support them."

The report recommends deeper analysis of the transitioning adult age group in existing research as well as new experimental studies on them. Much research of this age group takes place on college campuses using university students, and the committee members urged researchers to go beyond "high achievers" to examine the development of a broader swath of young people.

The report also recommends more focused interventions to ensure adolescents in high-risk groups, such as those aging out of foster care or the juvenile justice system, make a successful transition to adulthood. It also calls for better coordination between groups and agencies that work with adolescents—such as high schools and youth groups—and workforce and higher education groups. In particular, it suggests policymakers support more multigeneration programs that work with young parents and their children to prevent intergenerational poverty.

The nearly 400-page report has a plethora of detailed recommendations on education, research, health, and social policy for young adults. More than a year in the making, it was launched by a wide array of foundations as well as two federal agencies, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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