American fantasy? 1 in 6 high schoolers don’t believe their college dreams will come true

ATHENS, Ga. — Going to college and graduating is a dream many teens have, but a growing portion of modern high school students say attending college just isn’t realistic for them. Researchers from the University of Georgia report that the vast majority of high school juniors (85%) want to attend college after graduating — but one in six don’t think that will actually happen.

More specifically, study authors found that students with lower grades generally stilled want to go to college but were less likely to believe they could successfully attain a bachelor’s degree. The same held true among students attending public high schools. Those from low-income families were also less likely to believe they could eventually attend college, although this group still generally desired higher education. Both young men and Hispanic students were especially likely to want to go to college but did not expect to actually attend.

“In school, we often put kids on tracks and assume that once a student reaches high school, they’re either on the college track or they’re not on the college track,” says Robert Toutkoushian, corresponding author of the study and a professor of higher education at UGA, in a university release. “We treat them as if they’re stuck on those tracks. And we often focus on the kids who aren’t on the college track and try to convince them to go to the other route.”

“But I think our work also says you need to keep paying attention to the kids that say they’re on the college track because a substantial number of them at some point will fall off that track.”

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What can help get more kids into college?

The research team identified several factors appearing to influence students’ confidence in their ability to go to college. For example, taking advanced placement (AP) courses and completing prep courses for college admission exams, such as the ACT or SAT, usually made students more confident in pursuing higher education.

Additionally, both going on college tours and positive peer pressure from friends also planning to attend college had a positive effect on students’ beliefs in their ability to succeed in college.

Researchers analyzed data provided by the 2009 High School Longitudinal Study [HSLS:09], originally conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. That project was a nationally representative sample of high schoolers from 944 public and private schools who agreed to let researchers track them from 9th through 11th grade. For this latest project, study authors focused on responses from more than 9,650 students in their junior year.

The team emphasized answers to two main questions: “If there were no barriers, how far in school would you want to go” and “as things stand now, how far in school do you think you will actually get?”

While most students said they want to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s or doctorate, just 74 percent actually believe they would follow through on their plans. Consequently, those same students were less likely to search for, apply to, and enroll in college. Among those with low expectations for attending college, roughly half decided to go enroll in a two-year institution. The other half did not pursue higher education at all.

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Do kids have the wrong idea about college?

Study authors hypothesize that today’s students may be misinformed about the affordability of college or their likelihood of succeeding in earning a bachelor’s degree.

“We should strive to figure out how schools and institutes of higher education can make sure students know about the resources available to make college more affordable,” adds Hee Jung Gong, lead author of the study, who is now a professor of higher education at the University of Alabama and a recent graduate from UGA’s Louise McBee Institute of Higher Education.

Resources like free tutoring, student care and outreach centers, and accommodations like disability resource centers are available nowadays at most universities. As such, researchers posit a bachelor’s degree has never been more accessible.

College may not be for everyone, but study authors say everyone who wants to attend college should have a fair chance at doing so.

“From society’s point of view, it’s important to try to get more people to get more education,” Prof. Toutkoushian concludes. “Not only would they benefit, but we would all benefit from that.”

The study is published in the journal Educational Policy.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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