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Where are the forgotten half of emerging adults?

Aug. 9, 2017 | by Dr. Boyd

In the United States, the societal expectation to attend college can be intense. Any graduating senior can attest to the pressure. In the fall of 2015, approximately 20.2 million students attended American colleges and universities (Source).

Is everyone attending college? 

The forgotten half of emerging adults refers to emerging adults who do not go to college. Jeffrey Arnett used this expression during an address at the 2015 Conference of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood). Although college remains a popular choice, many emerging adults do not attend, and are often forgotten in research conducted on college campuses.

According to research results reflected in this chart from the National Center for Educational Statistics, approximately 50 percent of 18-19 year olds enrolled in postsecondary education in 2014. Results also indicate that another 20 percent of this age group is still in high school (secondary education); therefore, almost 70 percent of 18-19 year olds are in school.

boyd pic 1

The percentage of people pursuing diplomas drops significantly among 20-24 year olds.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, less than 40 percent of 20-24 year olds are enrolled in educational institutions.  So while there are many variables while considerations these statistics, it is reasonable to conclude that half of emerging adults who have recently graduated from high school do not attend college (18-24).

Where are the “forgotten half”?

They are not lost. They do not simply cease to exist. They are not pale-skinned and living in their parents’ basements playing video games (although you might find a few there). One place that they do not seem to stick around beyond youth group is the church.  Studies also indicate that fewer and fewer emerging adults are connected to a church. Apparently, it’s not just researchers who have neglected the “forgotten half,” so has the Church.

Many churches excuse themselves because they are not located in a “college town,” so they make few if any attempts to reach the post-secondary population. While many churches do not understand how to change this religious decline, other churches do not even see this generational neglect as a problem.

Emerging adults who do stay connected with their spiritual communities often encounter reduced programming and limited resources at church.  Trying to find a new place to sit, they must regularly face the question they dread the most – “How’s school?” As leaders, we seek to understand emerging adulthood, and train our communities to minister to them.

boyd pic 2Source – SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October Supplement, 1990-2014. See Digest of Education Statistics 2015, table 103.20.

How is the “forgotten half” different?

Understanding the lives of the forgotten half is really simple (if we seek only to describe them by their demographics or employment status), and yet extremely diverse (when we attempt to understand the true complexity of their lives). Slapping them with yet another label or making assumptions about their values and beliefs will not help us bring them into our communities.

Institutions and churches must conduct research on emerging adults who attend college and those who do not. This research is important for over-turning myths like the belief that college is the primary reason why so many college students turn away from their faith (Source). A recent publication on the social causes of religious decline stated that:

Contrary to expectations, emerging adults that avoid college exhibit the most extensive patterns of religious decline, undermining conventional wisdom about the secularizing effect of higher education. (Source)

Without research, we are left to make assumptions about how emerging adults feel and make decisions.  One of the best ways to discover the attitudes, feelings, and perceptions of emerging adults in your community is to ask them.  If you are interested doing some research among the emerging adults in your community, here are some free tools to get you started

I choose to be a voice for the forgotten half

May we build a chorus that the church will never forget.


Dr. Boyd

Dr. G. David Boyd is the Founder and Managing Director of EA Resources, a non-profit that seeks to equip parents and churches to minister to emerging adults. David and Rachel have been blessed with three energetic boys – Josiah, Andrew, and Tobias.



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