Socioeconomic Inequality and Mental Health after the Transition from High School

Our research on a cohort of young adults making the transition from high school employs a strategy for entry into this developmental period that is linked to our interest in processes of inequality. Other researchers have also examined features of social functioning and well-being in the years immediately after high school and addressed varying concerns. For example, much of the extensive research conducted by Schulenberg and his associates (Schulenberg et al., 2005), which draws from the Monitoring the Future project (Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 2003), focuses on escalations in drinking associated with off-campus residence among college students and is not prominently concerned with disadvantage and inequality.

Our emphasis on inequality led us to consider the different pathways that youth followed during the transitional period after high school. Specifically, we have been centrally interested in the heightened difficulties faced by young people who make a school-to-work transition, that is, those who seek full time employment rather than continued schooling. This large segment of the young adult population, who are necessarily omitted in mental health studies of young adults in college settings, came into public focus as the "forgotten half," in a series of reports on the career difficulties of the non-college bound (Hamilton, 1990; William T. Grant

Foundation Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship, 1988). Consistent with these aims, we selected public schools located in largely lower income urban areas, including schools serving students in two major cities in our geographic area. This resulted in a sample that was diverse in family socioeconomic background, race/ethnicity, and importantly, in post-high school educational and work pathways (Gore & Aseltine, 2003).

Although we have established that the fluidity and diversity in pathways to adulthood complicates finding a point of entry into the developmental process, our focus on a graduating cohort (and school dropouts from that cohort) and interest in vocational/educational pathways provided this point of entry for examining post-secondary life situations. The diverse composition of our sample further assisted us in contrasting the life situation and mental health of groups who had a full time college involvement, a full time work involvement, mixed involvements, and those underutilized in both spheres, when they were 2 years out of high school. In general, we found that an intra-individual or configurational approach was informative, when used in conjunction with regression methods. For example, in explaining an emergent racial/ethnic gap in depressed mood from time 1 to time 2, with Blacks and Hispanics more depressed than Whites and Asian Americans, we established that both full time school status (in a four year college) and full time work status were negatively associated with depression and important in accounting for these differentials. Descriptive data on school and work involvements indicated that Blacks and Hispanics were not very different than Whites, suggesting that the minorities should benefit from their numbers who were working at full time jobs. The distributions, however, were deceptive because they did not differentiate individuals who were designated as not working because they were in school from those who were both not working and not in school. Through examining different profiles of work and school involvement, we found that only 5 percent of the Whites were non-students who were not working, in contrast to 14 percent of the Blacks and 16 percent of the Hispanics.

In addition to young adults' educational/employment situations, we studied two additional features of post-secondary school experience: the stresses young adults were experiencing in their post-secondary situations, and the extent of negative transition events in their school and employment pathway over a two year period, both according to their own reports (Aseltine & Gore, 2005). Measures of these features of transitional experience draw on the dimensionality of the stress construct that is well established (Turner & Avison, 2003; Wheaton, 1994), with chronic stress in young people's work situation assessed through measures used in previous research on young people (Mortimer, Finch, Shanahan & Ryu, 1992) and adapted from the Michigan Quality of Employment Studies (Quinn & Staines, 1979). Our findings from this analysis are consistent with those obtained in our analysis of race/ethnicity, that the earlier independence that defines a post-secondary emphasis on employment can be health-promoting, but it carries with it higher stakes for stressful disruptions and failure to find developmentally suitable roles.

In framing this research study we drew heavily on the conceptualizations and research conducted by Simmons and her associates on school transitions during adolescence (Simmons & Blyth, 1987), which emphasized the importance of minimizing stressful disruptions during periods of peak individual and environment change. Within the large body of work on this issue, with much of it concerned with pubertal and cognitive change, Simmons' work stands out as significant in emphasizing the role of school structures in facilitating successful transitions. Through focusing on young people who do not transition from high school into a full time college experience, we were similarly concerned with young people at heightened risk for major stressors and mental health problems. As such, research in this vein points to the importance of educational and employment opportunity; in addition, it contextualizes the disruptions that occur within these pathways as features of stratification processes in the early adult years.

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