For decades, communities across the USA have tried all manner of raising high school graduation rates: higher academic standards, better school funding, stricter testing and calls for arts, vocational, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.
New research suggests there’s another way to raise graduation rates: simply increase the number of adults in a community.
Combining decennial U.S. Census and education data, a pair of researchers has found that improving the ratio of adults aged 25+ to school-aged children helps keep kids on a path to graduation. More adults in a neighborhood means a bigger “web of supports” that benefit all kids, said Jonathan Zaff, a developmental psychologist, executive director of the Center for Promise at Boston University School of Education and the lead researcher on the project.
It’s those relationships that young people need in order to be successful in school, he said.
The new research finds that for every seven adults a neighborhood adds, one fewer young person leaves school. The effect is even greater in upper-income neighborhoods, data suggest.
Researchers have long explored the adult-to-child ratio idea as it relates to crime policy, Zaff said, but the new findings are the first to apply it to schooling.
He said more research is needed to pinpoint exactly why a healthier youth-to-adult ratio aligns with better school outcomes. But it makes a certain kind of sense, since the primary role of adults has long been to teach, guide and provide social norms for young people.
When they’re not around to do that job, Zaff said, “then young people will turn to their peers — they’ll turn to their own devices, in a sense, in order to really figure things out. And what we see from the literature is that when that happens, when you don’t have the guidance of adults, the outcomes typically are not as positive.”
He noted, for instance, that international development researchers have long studied the “youth bulge” that results in developing nations when they experience civil wars or epidemics that kill a lot of adults.
“All of a sudden there are few adults, but there are a whole lot of young people without (their) guidance and support,” Zaff said. “That’s when you get things like child soldiers and people who don’t go to school — and a lot of other negative outcomes.”
The new research comes courtesy of America’s Promise Alliance, a centrist Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that closely tracks U.S. high school graduation rates — it has publicly pushed for a 90% graduation rate by the end of the decade. At last count, the USA’s graduation rate hovered around 82%, a record high, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The group on Monday posted an interactive tool that allows users to compare youth-to-adult ratios by Census tract and overlay the percentage of youth either not in school or unemployed.
Why do low-income neighborhoods tend to have fewer adults? Possible culprits: higher rates of incarceration, adult mortality and single parenthood, for instance.
On the flip side, in wealthier neighborhoods with higher birth rates, families’ higher incomes can make up for the lack of adults-per-child, Zaff said. He offered the example of two of the USA’s wealthiest communities, both in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., with “amazing” schools and other amenities that keep graduation rates high.
“If you go to a place like Bethesda or Potomac, there are so many resources around the young people that it can make up for the lack of adult capacity,” he said. Wealthy communities “can, in a sense, afford those kids.”
But he noted that one key indicator — adults’ education levels — actually had an interesting relationship to graduation rates: “It had no effect, actually.”
It’s not that education levels don’t matter, Zaff said. “Education matters, but even if you have adults who don’t have a college degree, they do play a really important role in the education of youth in their community. It’s not this elitist thing: ‘Only those communities that have a lot of college-educated people will be able to do this.’ It really is that all adults have a role to play.”