Purposes of Monitoring the Future
The Monitoring the Future (MTF) project, begun in 1975, has many purposes. Among them is to study changes in the beliefs, attitudes, and behavior of young people in the United States. In recent years, the U.S. has experienced tremendous changes in public opinion toward such diverse issues as government and politics, alcohol and other drug use, gender roles, and protection of the environment. Much of our current upheaval in attitudes is especially concentrated, and often first seen, in today’s youth. This study focuses on youth because of their significant involvement in today’s social changes and, most important, because youth in a very literal sense will constitute our future society.
The results of the study are useful to policymakers at all levels of government, for example, to monitor progress toward national health goals. Study results are also used to monitor trends in substance use and abuse among adolescents and young adults and are used routinely in the White House Strategy on Drug Abuse.
Design of Monitoring the Future
The Monitoring the Future (MTF) Main study, also widely known for some years as the National High School Senior Survey, is a repeated series of surveys in which the same segments of the population (8th, 10th, and 12th graders; college students; and young adults) are presented with the same set of questions over a period of years to see how answers change over time.
The Main study has been conducted under a series of research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health. Surveys have been carried out each year since 1975 by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center. MTF respondents are 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students who participate by completing self-administered, machine-readable questionnaires in their normal classrooms, administered by University personnel. In addition to the 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students, annual follow-up questionnaires are sent to a sample of each graduating class for a number of years after their initial participation.
The Main study began with senior classes in 1975, and each year about 16,000 students in approximately 133 public and private high schools nationwide participate. Beginning in 1991, similar surveys of nationally representative samples of 8th and 10th graders have been conducted annually; the 8th grade samples contain about 18,000 students in about 150 schools, and the 10th grade samples contain about 17,000 students in about 140 schools. In all, approximately 50,000 students in about 420 public and private secondary schools are surveyed annually.
The MTF Panel study extends the work of the MTF Main study by following a subsample of graduating seniors through the entire adult life course. The final year of high school is a key moment in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, making it a strategic starting point for longitudinal surveys. It is an important base year and is the final point at which a reasonably good national sample of an age-specific cohort can be drawn from schools.
Beginning with the class of 1976, a randomly selected sample of around 2,400 graduating seniors have taken follow up surveys every two years from ages 19–30 and every five years starting at age 35. For young adults (19–30) each cohort’s follow up sample is split into two random subsamples that are surveyed in alternate years (at ages 19/20, 21/22, 23/24, 25/26, 27/28, 29/30), so the Panel study obtains a representative sample from each cohort every year.
The Panel study now has over 108,000 individuals, with approximately 28,500 surveyed every year. These data provide needed insight into the epidemiology and etiology of substance use and related behaviors, attitudes, and other factors. Repeating these annual cross-sectional surveys over time provides data to examine behavior change across history in consistent age segments of the adult life course and key subgroups.
The Main and Panel studies’ design permits the investigators to examine four kinds of change:
- Changes in particular years reflected across all age groups (secular trends or “period effects”)
- Developmental changes that show up consistently for all panels (“age effects”)
- Consistent differences among class cohorts through the life cycle (“cohort effects”)
- Changes linked to different types of environments (high school, college, employment) or role transitions (leaving the parental home, marriage, parenthood, etc.)
For the MTF Main study, the data from students are collected during the spring of each year. Each year’s data collection takes place in approximately 420 public and private high schools and middle schools selected to provide an accurate representative cross section of students throughout the coterminous United States at each grade level.
A multi-stage random sampling procedure is used for securing the nationwide sample of students each year at each grade level.
Stage 1: The selection of particular geographic areas.
Stage 2: The selection (with probability proportionate to size) of one or more schools in each area.
Stage 3: The selection of classes within each school.
Within each school, up to 350 students may be included. In schools with fewer students, the usual procedure is to include all of them in the data collection. In larger schools, a subset of students is selected either by randomly sampling entire classrooms or by some other random method that is judged to be unbiased. Sampling weights are used when the data are analyzed to correct for unequal probabilities of selection that occurred at any stage of sampling.
For the Panel study, 12th graders reporting 20 or more occasions of marijuana use in the past 30 days or any use of the other illicit drugs in the past 30 days are selected with higher probability in order to ensure that drug-using populations are adequately represented. Through age 30 each respondent takes the same questionnaire form they took in the 12th grade, and starting with age 35 respondents all take the same questionnaire form.
Up through 2017, all Panel study surveys were conducted by mailing paper surveys. In 2018 and 2019, one random half of all those aged 19–30 received a mailed paper survey, while the other half received new web-push procedures and were encouraged to complete web surveys. Analyses showed that—after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics—there were few differences in substance use prevalence estimates by survey mode. In 2020, the transition to the web-push procedures began for the age 35+ surveys; analyses showed that the web-push design had minimal impacts on response rates or substance use estimates for those ages 35 to 60. All Panel surveys now use web-push procedures.
Main Study. About 10 days before the administration, the students are given flyers explaining the study. Also, advance letters to parents inform them about the study and provide them a handy means for declining their child’s participation if they so desire. The actual questionnaire administrations are conducted by the local Institute for Social Research representatives and their assistants, following standardized procedures detailed in a project instruction manual. The questionnaires are group administered in classrooms during a normal class period whenever possible; however, circumstances in some schools require the use of larger group administrations.
Panel Study. Panel study participants are sent mailed invitations, emails, and text messages inviting them to complete a web survey. They can also complete a paper survey if they prefer to do so. Every participant is sent a check as a token of appreciation before they take the survey. For the web-based surveys, confidentiality is ensured by immediate encryption of data.