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Bonnie Leads Effort Urging Support for Young Adults

by Mary Wood

Richard Bonnie
Professor Richard Bonnie had students in his Age of Majority seminar contribute to the report.

What it means to be an adult varies depending on if you are registering to vote or renting a car, but a new report led by University of Virginia School of Law professor Richard Bonnie suggests that regardless of when the label applies, youths need support beyond age 18 to successfully transition into independent adulthood.

Bonnie is chair of a National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and National Research Council committee that in October released its report, “Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults.”

The report offers federal, state, and local policymakers and program leaders, as well as employers, nonprofit organizations and other community partners guidance in developing and enhancing policies and programs to improve young adults’ health, safety and well-being. In addition, the report suggests priorities for research to inform policies and programs for young adults.

“The main message of this report is that very few young people are in a position to make a successful transition to independent adulthood when they turn 18,” Bonnie said. “The IOM report urges state and federal policymakers to recognize the society’s collective obligation to help all of our youth obtain the education and skills they need to become productive members of society. We all have a stake in making this investment.”

Overnight, 18-year-old adults have the right to vote, sign contracts and take on other legal obligations, but they also can’t buy alcohol, rent a car, or be eligible for various jobs or fiduciary positions where the legal age is higher, typically 21. On the flip side, most states allow teenagers to make health care decisions as young as 14 or 16, while some youths charged with certain crimes are eligible to be tried as adults.

“There is no single age of adulthood, and these are policy decisions that depend on the specific context,” he said.

The report defines young adults as those aged 18 to 26. This stage is critical to long-term success, Bonnie said, and “the stakes are high.” About 17 percent of young adults age 16 to 24 are neither in school nor employed. One study following a group of recent high school graduates until they were 25 showed that less than 60 percent had graduated from four- or two-year colleges.

“The only transition that occurs at age 18 is graduation from high school, but this is only the first step on the path to adulthood,” Bonnie said. “What sense does it make for parental support obligations for children of divorced parents to evaporate at 18, as occurs in many states? Fortunately, most parents do whatever they can to provide support that their children need to enroll in higher education, but many divorced fathers do not. What about young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not have the advice, technical assistance and financial support available to their peers from more advantaged families?”

Young adults today are also facing substantial barriers in the wake of an economic recession, Bonnie said. The situation is most dire for those without college degrees.

“Young college graduates have employment rates and wage rates that are roughly 30 and 60 percent higher, respectively, than rates for those who completed only high school, and the earnings gap between people with bachelor’s degrees and a high school education only has doubled since 1980.”

To address some of these challenges, the committee made recommendations ranging from raising completion rates for those in high school and colleges to ensuring that young people are being educated in skills the workforce needs.

The age at which we consider citizens to be adults and whether they age out of social services has ripple effects for youths’ long-term prospects for success, Bonnie said, and reforms are sometimes slow to spread. For example, recent changes to federal law have allowed states to claim reimbursement for foster care up to age 21, but most states still allow young people to age out of foster care at 18.

“Needless to say, young adults who age out of foster care have difficulty achieving financial independence,” he said.

The IOM-NRC committee convened at the direction of the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Department of Defense.

Bonnie also involved students in his Age of Majority seminar in the effort this semester. The students signed confidentiality agreements and helped review the report when it was undergoing the Academies’ own rigorous scientific review.

“Some of the students’ comments and suggestions are reflected in the final report,” he said.

Bonnie is Harrison Foundation Professor of Medicine and Law; Class of 1941 Research Professor of Law; professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences; director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy; and professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.