The Origins of Monitoring the Future

On a grey day in 1974, three researchers left the Carnegie Corporation’s imposing building on Madison Avenue in New York City in a low mood. Jerald Bachman, 38, Lloyd Johnston, 34, and Robert Kahn, 56, all from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), had come from Ann Arbor in high spirits to pitch an idea for an ambitious new study on youth to Carnegie President Alan Pifer. But Pifer wasn’t interested in putting any money into the project. It was too big, too broad, too expensive.

The researchers headed back to Ann Arbor deflated. It wasn’t clear where they could turn next, or even whether the study would go forward. Bachman had come up with the idea for an expansive new study on youth back in 1969. In part, he was inspired by Youth in Transition (YIT), a national study he and Kahn had launched three years earlier. YIT’s main thrust was examining the causes and consequences for young men of dropping out of high school. But Bachman wanted to do something bigger—a study that would encompass attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs in many areas of adolescent life, such as race relations, gender roles, politics, and conservation.

Bachman figured the new study could rely exclusively on questionnaires administered to high school seniors in schools, and follow-up mail questionnaires. He also wanted the new project to be a panel study—following respondents over time to see how their attitudes and behaviors changed. But the researchers would have to be careful to interpret any observed changes correctly. It was the early 1970s, and social turmoil in America was reaching a peak. So would a decrease in government trust indicate an age effect, as the respondents grew older; a change specific to this one class or cohort; or a broader change in society? In order to sort those factors out, Bachman believed they needed to add a new cohort of respondents each year.

Jerald Bachman and Lloyd Johnston outside of ISR-Thompson.

Jerald Bachman and Lloyd Johnston outside of ISR-Thompson.

Working closely on the new study design at Bachman’s invitation was Lloyd Johnston. Johnston had come to ISR in 1966 as a doctoral student, and he soon became part of the YIT team, where he and another colleague asked if they could include a segment in YIT about drug use and attitudes towards drugs. Bachman agreed, and they added a section on drugs to the 1970 questionnaire.

When Johnston saw the responses to the drug questions, he wanted to do something with them. Most drug surveys at the time were local studies, Johnston says, and there wasn’t good national data available. “The ones that found high levels of drug use are the ones that made it into the paper, and the ones that didn’t would not get any coverage,” he recalls. In contrast, the national YIT survey showed that drug use was not yet as widespread as people assumed.

Johnston analyzed the data and in 1973 published Drugs and American Youth. The book, which shed light on a problem that had only recently grabbed the attention of mainstream America, ended up in the hands of Robert DuPont, who under President Richard Nixon had just become the nation’s second drug czar. DuPont read the book on a plane trip back to Washington, D.C., and was so engaged that he invited Johnston to his D.C. office to discuss the findings. “Very heady,” Johnston recalls. “I was still a graduate student.” Based on that conversation, the White House Office on Drugs, predecessor to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, agreed to help fund YIT for another round so that it could continue gathering data on adolescent drug use. Back in Ann Arbor, with the failed appeal to Carnegie behind them, Bachman and Johnston considered their options. (Robert Kahn had shifted his attention to other projects.) They knew they would need a major funder to do the kind of ambitious study they envisioned, which they had dubbed Monitoring the Future. But they’d already shopped the idea around to the obvious benefactors without any bites.

Then Johnston had an idea. “We can’t sell all these things in a basket to anybody. Why don’t we try to figure out a way to make it valuable enough to one sponsor that they will pay for it and allow us to carry along some of these other subjects?’”

Specifically, Johnston thought of DuPont and his deep interest in getting a better fix on drug use among American youth. DuPont was about to become the founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); Johnston and Bachman figured NIDA would be the perfect sponsor.

The two researchers tinkered with the study proposal to put a stronger focus on drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol—content that would appeal to DuPont. But they worried that the drug czar wouldn’t grasp the need for adding a new group of respondents each year. “We went there prepared to tell him about the many advantages of what is called a cohort sequential design,” Bachman recalls. “We got to his office and the wall is plastered with charts showing cohort sequential design data for heroin addiction in D.C.” Bachman smiles at the memory. “He was presold.”

DuPont said yes to the proposal. Both Johnston and Bachman now view that as a stroke of supreme good luck. “If we had tried to go from the bottom of the bureaucracy up, we never would have gotten there,” Johnston says. “But DuPont had enough of a global perspective to appreciate how this might be used.”

NIDA gave the researchers $3 million for the first five years—a huge grant in 1974—and Johnston and Bachman set to work. They hired five graduate students to research what surveys had been done in the target areas, designed several questionnaires, contacted school principals, and launched the first data gathering the following year. Johnston presented the results along with DuPont and NIDA to a small media gathering in a Washington, D.C. hotel conference room in 1976.

In the decades that followed, Monitoring the Future—later expanded to include 8th and 10th graders as well as seniors—became the nation’s measuring stick of substance use and abuse by the young. Among its early contributions was demonstrating that an increase in the perceived risk of a drug would cause its use to fall. The study also has served as an early warning signal for the spikes in cigarette smoking in the early 1990s and the constant arrival of new drugs, giving policy makers the information they need to respond effectively.

Johnston’s presentation of each year’s study results, along with the NIDA director and usually other high government officials, has become an annual Washington event. Meanwhile, Bachman; Patrick O’Malley, who joined soon after the study’s launch; and John Schulenberg, who became a fourth partner “just” twenty years ago, have done extensive analysis of respondents’ evolving responses over time, and have drawn on the study’s data to report on non-drug issues ranging from self-esteem to attitudes towards military service.

Last year, Monitoring the Future was renewed with another five-year grant, this time for $35 million. In addition to surveying 45,000-50,000 students in schools each year, the study is now tracking 36 graduating classes of respondents, with a cumulative total of more than 60,000 continuing participants; members of the first group are now 54-55 years old. It is the longest running independent investigator-initiated research study at ISR, a fact that clearly makes Johnston and Bachman proud.

Would the study have happened if DuPont had not happened upon Johnston’s first book? “Monitoring the Future would probably not exist,” Johnston says bluntly. “A piece of luck.” Bachman agrees. “We thought about this as a design that ought to go on and on and on. And then we finally found a sponsor that had the same perspective.” He adds: “We’re now fond of saying that the study ought to outlast the original investigators.”

By Susan Rosegrant

The Origins of Monitoring the Future