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Foundations for Young Adult Success
By Jenny Nagaoka/School Administrator, December 2015

When it comes to the big questions in education, what should the mission of schools be? What do we want our students to be able to accomplish as adults? How do we make success a reality for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or other factors?

Focusing on making students college and career ready is important. Yet it falls short of our real aspirations for students: to become happy, confident adults with meaningful work, healthy relationships and an interest in their community. We want them to be able to meet the complex expectations and demands of adulthood. If these are our ambitions for our students, schools must focus on more than just helping students build strong academic skills.

Ingredients to Succeed

There is ample evidence that students need a wide range of skills and attitudes to develop into successful young adults. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research has released a comprehensive report on this topic, “Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework.” The report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, is available at

In addition to highlighting the need for adults, particularly teachers, to interact with young people and attend to students’ changing developmental needs, the report identifies three key factors that best position young adults for success.

  • Agency. Young adults need to have the agency to make choices and take an active role in pursuing the life they want to lead, rather than solely being the product of their circumstances. Agency allows young adults to see life’s possibilities and manage their interactions with others on a daily basis. While having agency equips young adults to make choices and take action, the ability to pursue a desired path also depends on social relationships, financial resources and countless other external factors that are inequitably distributed. This means that for adults working with young people, especially those from marginalized communities, being intentional about the development of agency takes on great significance in helping youth reach their maximum potential as young adults.
  • Competencies. Young adults need competencies such as critical thinking, responsible decision making and the ability to collaborate. Such competencies allow them to be productive and engaged, navigate across contexts, perform effectively in different settings and adapt to task and setting demands. Competencies are what enable young people to pursue the choices they have made about how they want to lead their lives.
  • Integrated identity. Having an integrated identity gives young adults a clear sense of who they are, where they come from, who they might become and how their different roles and identities fit together. All children grow up building an identity and learning cultural navigation skills that allow them to move with relative ease around their own neighborhoods and communities, but those skills do not always readily transfer to new contexts.

For young people growing up in marginalized communities, the task of reconciling different aspects of the self across contexts can be challenging. An integrated identity serves as an internal framework for making choices and provides a base from which young people approach the world.

Beyond Academics

School learning is not just the transfer of content knowledge and skills from teacher to student. It is an ongoing process that involves observing the world, interacting with others and making meaning of experiences.

And students learn much more than academic content in schools. They make judgments about whether school is a place where they belong, develop identities as good or bad students, decide if working hard in a class is worthwhile and form coping mechanisms to get through the day.

All adults in the school building play a role in ensuring that students’ learning is intentionally structured to give them the opportunity to reflect and make meaning of their experiences in ways that build their identity as learners, give them competencies to effectively engage in their classwork, and help them develop agency in how they interact with the world so they can be successful in school and life.

Jenny Nagaoka is deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. E-mail: Twitter: @UChiConsortium