Not Quite Adults by Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray

by Richard Settersten, co-author of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Bantam, 2010)

One of the inescapable burdens of being an educator relates to this simple truth: We grow older, but our students are forever young. Yet, as new students file into our classrooms each year, we’re aware of a complementary truth: Just because our students are always young doesn’t mean they’re always the same. Recent years have brought a seismic shift in the kinds of students we face.

Anchored in nearly a decade of collaborative research conducted by an interdisciplinary team of scientists assembled by the MacArthur Foundation (myself included), Not Quite Adults provides an intimate look at today’s young people.

Writing this book with my co-author, Barbara Ray, has changed how I teach and relate to my college students. Here are a few lessons that will be helpful for high school teachers, too:

  • A slower path into adulthood is good. It pays off for young people to make careful, strategic choices and to build credentials and experiences that will carry them for the long haul.
  • While a slower path is good for everyone, not everyone is doing it or doing it well. The futures of many young people are fragile, often because they’ve forgone or failed in higher education or because they’ve leapt too quickly into family responsibilities.
  • As any teacher can attest, over-involved parents can be real nuisances. In our society, however, the support of parents is crucial in determining whether young adults sink or swim. Of course, those outcomes also rest heavily on the prior contributions of teachers like you and me.
  • For students whose parents aren’t involved or don’t have the know-how, a strong adult mentor can make all the difference. These mentors are often teachers.
  • College still pays. But there are important considerations to keep in mind. Among other things, students need to (1) finish (there are serious crises with retention and graduation), (2) take out debt in line with their potential earnings (students shouldn’t take out $60K if they’re going to be teachers or social workers), and (3) pick institutions and majors that are well aligned with their personalities and learning styles.
  • When it comes to college, the Toyota may be just as good as the Mercedes. Students who have the skills and capacities to do well at top-tier institutions are likely to do equally well a rung or two down the institutional ladder.
  • The “college for all” mantra dupes many students, who need frank advice about their prospects and a clear map for how to get there—or someplace else productive. This mantra equates outcomes other than college with failure.
  • Volunteering and civic involvement can help young people build networks and learn about leadership and collaboration firsthand.
  • Nurture boys and young men, who are at great risk for high school and college drop out, unemployment, and being disconnected from healthy relationships.

 It’s important to remember that the world we’re training our students for is dramatically different from the one we knew. One of the most dangerous things we can do is give advice based on a world that no longer exists. Not Quite Adults is not an apology for today’s young people. On the contrary, it is a big wake up call for all of us.

—Rick Settersten