What the Future Holds

Monday, July 4, 2011
Sociologists of education love longitudinal studies since they allow us to get a sense of how people's lives unfold over time as they engage with schools and society. But man, they take forever to produce data! We have to wait, and wait, and wait for kids to age, then for data to be assembled, made available, etc.

So I get kinda psyched when NCES issues a newsflash with the latest report from one of its longitudinal studies. The most recent is not even longitudinal--yet. It's about fall 2009 9th graders, who form the basis for the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009. The results are based on a nationally representative sample of 20,000 9th graders attending 944 high schools.

In a sense, this is decent way to examine what's coming down the pike towards the nation's colleges and universities. Prior research clearly demonstrates that the road to college entrance requires a surefooted start in 9th grade. So how do things look now?

No doubt about it, these 9th graders are ambitious. Fully 73% expect to attain more than a high school degree (another 22% aren't sure what they will do). This isn't surprising, as John Reynolds, Barbara Schneider and others have been describing an upward trajectory in college ambitions for quite some time. Consistent with national trends, girls expect to go further than boys -- 44% of 9th grade girls said they would earn a graduate degree, compared to 35% of 9th grade boys. Sadly, 27% of students in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic distribution didn't expect to attend any college, compared to just 3% of those in the top 5th. A similar proportion of those in the bottom 5th planned to attend graduate school, compared to 56% of those in the top 5th.

Some kids are also pretty realistic. NCES administered a test of algebra achievement, and 39% of those scoring in the bottom quintile don't expect to go beyond high school. Nearly one in four said they "don't know" what their educational expectations are. In comparison, just 14% of students in the top quintile on that test weren't sure of what would happen after high school, and 95% expected to go on to college. But oddly enough, almost 25% of students who expect to finish college and/or go to graduate school hadn't even made it as far as Algebra I by 9th grade, and 29% weren't taking any science.

And this time NCES asked a pretty cool question about the probability that students will be able to finish college: "Whatever your plans, do you think you have the ability to complete a Bachelor’s degree?" What amazes me is that the percent of students who responded that they would "definitely" complete college didn't exceed 75% for any of the subgroups analyzed-- at best, 75% of 9th graders who expected to complete graduate school were definitely certain of their ability to complete college. That may indicate that they've internalized a fair bit of the world's uncertainty. Especially the boys--heck, 34% of these 9th grade boys couldn't identify what occupation they'd like to be working in at age 30.

These kids have a long road ahead of them- I only hope that when they reach higher education, our colleges are ready to meet their needs.

**The next HLS wave is 2012-- when most of the students will be 11th graders. We'll see what happens!