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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood
D. Wayne Osgood E. Michael Foster Mark E. Courtney

Research Needs

Another requirement for developing more effective support for vulnerable youth in transition is more and better research. With a few notable exceptions, such as the National Longitudinal Transition Studies in special education, data on these populations, especially during the transition to adulthood, are limited. Researchers have not yet provided either comprehensive, representative descriptions of the populations or systematic information about how they fare during the transition to adulthood. And though promising directions for policy and practice are being identified, few interventions have been tested empirically. For the most part, our policy recommendations reflect common sense and matters of fairness and justice, rather than strong evidence. Certainly policies should be logical and ethical, but they must also be based on detailed and accurate analyses of the problems to be addressed and on empirical tests of how well alternative strategies work.

Top research priorities include identifying which youth are in greatest need and which would benefit most from transition programs. The two groups likely overlap in terms of race, gender, and many other characteristics, but whether and how they do is unknown. This issue is critical given the heterogeneity of the populations served and the shortage of funds overall. Quite likely some youth need much more help than others to succeed, and different youth need different types of help. The lack of knowledge about these differing needs is especially problematic because it makes it extremely difficult to target the limited resources available for such help.

Administrative data represent a potential resource to help identify the size of the vulnerable youth population, its involvement over time in various public systems, and important transition outcomes for the population. Developments in information technology are allowing states to develop databases that offer more accurate and more comprehensive information on individuals' needs for services and history of involvement with the systems. These data sources can be linked across systems to identify individuals who have been involved in multiple systems, perhaps signaling greater need for services. Linked administrative data can also help identify youths' trajectories through various systems, identifying potential gaps in services and opportunities to target interventions. Many outcomes of interest during the transition to adulthood, such as employment, college enrollment and degree completion, crime, and receipt of public assistance, can be monitored using administrative data.59

Such data also provide an opportunity to understand innovative practices as they occur. States and localities exercise considerable autonomy in operating systems for vulnerable youth, leading to variation in the programs and policies implemented. That variation provides a learning opportunity for researchers who can systematically describe these policy and program variations across jurisdictions.60 Linking data on program and policies, system involvement, and outcomes can provide an opportunity to determine which programs and policies are linked to better outcomes.