Widespread job loss puts college in jeopardy for next generation

Financial and emotional stress lowers college attendance.

In a new Science study, researchers have found that the negative effects of job loss aren’t limited to the families of those that have lost their jobs, but extends to the entire community. Children in these communities suffer mental health challenges that lowers their test scores, and their chances of attending university. African-American students and those from the poorest families are most affected.

We spoke to one of the authors, Elizabeth O. Ananat from Duke University about the study.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study?

Elizabeth O. Ananat: Many economists had claimed that economic change, while increasing economic inequality, would also increase economic mobility, because instead of following their parents’ footsteps to the now-closed factory door, youth would head to college and join the “knowledge economy.” We, however, had found in previous work that local job losses harmed test scores and mental health of youth, and we were curious as to whether the added economic incentive to attend college was outweighed by these challenges due to local job losses—whether community job losses would in fact decrease rather than increase college-going, especially among more disadvantaged youth.

RG: What did you find?

Ananat: In fact, community job losses increase economic inequality in college attendance.

After states suffer job loss, college attendance drops for low-income students. Credit: Jonathan Fuller, Duke University.

RG: How did you discover this?

Ananat: We used newly available data on inequality in college attendance by geographic area, combined with our own well-validated measures of community job loss, and tested the effect of area job losses when youth are aged 12-17 on inequality in their college attendance at age 19.

RG: Is this trend just a matter of ability to afford college, or are there other reasons?

Ananat: We have found that local job losses cause community distress and mental health challenges among youth, and lowers their test scores. We believe that distress inhibits learning and college preparation, particularly among youth with the lowest resources for buffering effects of downturns, and thereby knocks many youth (especially the most disadvantaged) off the path to college.

RG: What type of industries did the parents of the most affected youth work in?

Ananat: The effects of community job losses are widespread, and not restricted to youth whose parents work in affected industries.  All youth appear to be affected, particularly the most disadvantaged.

Moreover, our data look across the United States over multiple decades, capturing job losses caused by everything from increased trade and automation, to the dot-com bust, to erosion of demand for local retail.

RG: What policies would you recommend based on this data?

Ananat: We recommend policies that reduce the uncertainty and strain that currently accompany job displacement in the United States. In particular, structured retraining to help displaced workers transition to new jobs in expanding industries, such as that provided in Denmark, may reduce the trauma associated with job loss and fears of job loss.

RG: Is there a take-away for universities?  

Ananat: Universities can help address these hurdles for disadvantaged students by reaching out to impacted areas to make it easier for students to apply, matriculate, and maintain enrollment. Given that youth may be reluctant to leave their communities in crisis and prefer to matriculate near home, it may also be helpful to provide additional support for local universities in the wake of job losses.

RG: Do the effects of economic differ across communities?

Ananat: Much media coverage has assumed that the challenges facing the white working class and African-Americans due to economic change are different and that addressing one set involves ignoring the other. Our research suggests that these two groups in fact share challenges in common, with the experiences of African-Americans looking similar, but simply more severe.

Featured image courtesy of Patricia A. Murray