FEATURE — Spring 2005
   

 
Alumnus Samuel Halperin is founder of the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., which works to bridge the gap between research, policy, and practice in education, youth development, and employment readiness.

Remembering the 'Forgotten Half'

by Betsy Rogers

Alumnus Samuel Halperin's landmark study reveals the obstacles faced by non-college-bound youth in today's economy. His current focus is educating legislators on possible solutions.

Samuel Halperin trained as a political scientist, but he has given his life to education.

Halperin earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1956, all in political science and all at Washington University. He then began teaching political science at Wayne State University, in Detroit, but hoping to learn more about the practical world of politics, he applied for and won a Congressional Fellowship from the American Political Science Association. It took him to Washington, D.C., and, for the most part, he's been there ever since. That practical world of politics, and in particular the politics of education, became his life's work.

By the early 1960s, he had joined the team of legislative architects writing the education and social services bills for Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. As assistant U.S. commissioner of education for legislation and, later, as a deputy assistant secretary of health, education, and welfare, he helped craft the historic church-state compromise that cleared the way for passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, providing federal funding for programs to help low-income children in public and private schools. Another law bearing his stamp was the 1965 Higher Education Act, which provided substantial new sources of financial aid for college students, the forerunners of today's Pell grants.

In the decades since, he's continued to practice the art of the possible, mastering the inner workings of the legislative process, helping craft and pass key legislation, and finding new and compelling ways to convince legislators of the critical role education plays in a civil society.

Today, as senior fellow at the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., he still works to improve public education and to open up opportunities for those who might not otherwise even dream of college, the youth of the "forgotten half."

Halperin turned his attention to this issue in 1986, when he went to work for the William T. Grant Foundation as study director of its Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. "While the attention of the nation was focused on kids going to college," Halperin says, "the truth is that 70 percent of our adults never earn a college degree. Something needed to be done to give them the skill and the opportunities to be successful in society and in the employment market."

In 1988 the commission issued two landmark reports, "The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America" and "The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America's Youth and Young Families." The reports, which Halperin co-authored, revealed the obstacles facing non-college-bound youth making their way in today's problematic economy, where advanced technical skills are the coin of the realm and a high-school diploma falls far short of guaranteeing a job. (Halperin also edited an update, "The Forgotten Half Revisited," in 1998.)

The Grant Foundation, not content simply to publish the reports, asked Halperin to stay on and help disseminate the findings, to identify solutions, and to work for their implementation. "It was visionary," he says of the foundation.

To accomplish this last end, in 1993 Halperin founded the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) with the express purpose of bridging the gap between research, policy, and practice in the fields of education, youth development, and employment readiness. It is here that he continues his decades of service to American youth.
The AYPF brings together policy-makers, researchers, and youth-services practitioners with senior congressional aides, executive branch leaders, and officers of associations concerned with youth development. These groups gather both for field trips and for forums. "We get people away from Washington," Halperin observes, "seeing what it's really like in the classroom, talking with parents, young people, employers, to get a sense of what's working and what isn't." The forums, held on Capitol Hill, discuss new studies and new literature in the field, as well as current contentious issues.

"We keep trying to create a voluntary professional development atmosphere in which people, regardless of which agency they work for or which political party they're attached to, come and learn together." And in the midst of Washington's fierce partisanship, they also work hard to keep a balance. Both parties, for instance, are represented in the top AYPF staff. "I think we've walked that line very successfully," Halperin says. "We've maintained a pretty open dialogue for 12 years."

The obstacles to expanding educational opportunities are daunting, Halperin concedes. For one, though Americans when polled always give education a high priority, frequently they fail to vote for the very bond issues or tax increases that would help improve their schools. Funding is always on the line, hostage to some budgetary crisis or other.

"These ideas don't walk by themselves. You have to keep reminding people of the findings, you have to update the findings, and you have to get and retain the attention of policy-makers."

There are also widely held beliefs, sometimes warranted but often not, that the school systems are riddled with waste. And there's an incrementalism in attacking social problems that works against any grand vision. "The nature of American social policy-making is gradualism," he observes. "It's piecemeal. You hardly ever get a comprehensive and politically practical strategy."

At the same time, American education has remarkable strengths. "We have this wonderful graduate education that attracts students from all over the world," he notes. He cites the Job Corps, which helps 70,000 young people train for employment every year—"who for want of that opportunity," he adds, "would probably be on the streets, in jail, or worse." Halperin is especially enthusiastic about the nation's community colleges, whose presidents and boards, he believes, are the real entrepreneurs in the educational marketplace, fashioning training programs to give today's youth 21st-century skills. "They've managed in many cases to figure out what their communities need," he explains. "They go to employers, to different segments of the public, and fashion local solutions to meet local needs."

Historically, America has had a grand educational vision, he says. "The finest thing we ever did in this country was the land-grant college legislation, which saw to it that every community could have access to the best research and the best knowledge available. Before that the Northwest Ordinance set aside public land in every community for the support of public schools. In more modern times, I can't think of anything superior to the GI Bill, which said, in effect, 'Go, develop yourself, and we will support you in that life-changing endeavor.'

My vision would be that everybody could get any opportunity that our society provides."

Halperin understands well the priceless benefit of transformational opportunity. He has held high rank in the federal government. He has written or edited a dozen books on the political process and educational policy. He has taught at Wayne State, American, Duke, and Columbia universities. He has received the President's Medal of The George Washington University, the American Association of Community College's Harry S. Truman Award, and numerous other distinctions.

But, he adds: "I could not have done what I've done without initial loans and a fellowship from Washington University. An incredible number of faculty members took a personal interest in me. And the studies equipped me to think and to deal with change. They gave me a way to look at the world and to cope creatively with it, and I'm very grateful."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.