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Teen career plans out of sync with reality

So your high school senior says she wants to be a doctor. Great news, right? It is if she's got the talent and the grades to back up her ambition.

Unfortunately, the goals of too many teens now outpace what they are likely to achieve, a problem that can lead to wasted time and resources, not to mention anxiety and distress, according to a new Florida State University study.

Sociology Professor John Reynolds tracked changes in high school seniors' educational and occupational plans between 1976 and 2000 and found the gap in goals and actual achievements has grown over the 25-year period. The study, co-authored by FSU graduate students Michael Stewart, Ryan MacDonald and Lacey Sischo, was published in the journal Social Problems.

"Today's teens are both highly ambitious and increasingly unrealistic," Reynolds said. "While some youth clearly benefit from heightened ambition, it can lead to disappointment and discouragement rather than optimism and success."

The study, which was supported by a $47,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is the first to show with comparable, national data how dramatically high school seniors' plans have changed since the 1970s, how these expectations are increasingly out of sync with the achievements of their peers and that there is a corresponding decline in the payoffs of student ambition for future accomplishments in school.

The researchers analyzed data from several national surveys, including the annual Monitoring the Future Survey, the National Longitudinal Study, the Digest of Education Statistics and the Current Population Survey.

They found that high school seniors in 2000 were much more ambitious than their 1976 counterparts with 50 percent of seniors planning to continue their education after college to get an advanced degree and 63 percent planning to work in a professional job, such as doctor, lawyer, college professor, accountant or engineer, by age 30. In 1976, only 26 percent said they planned to get an advanced degree and 41 percent planned to work as a professional. Other categories were laborer, farmer or homemaker; service, sales or clerical; operative or crafts; military or protective services; entrepreneur; and administrator or manager.

Interestingly, the percentage of high school graduates between age 25 and 30 who actually earned advanced degrees has remained pretty steady, meaning only the expectations have changed, and dramatically at that. The gap between expectations of earning an advanced degree and what is realistic grew from 22 percentage points in 1976 to 41 percentage points in 2000.

The researchers attribute the high school seniors' unrealistic expectations to the declining influence of grades and high school curricula and the increase of students who plan to use community college as an educational stepping-stone to a bachelor's degree and beyond. While community college may be valuable, statistics show that these students are much less likely to earn a bachelor's degree, let alone an advanced degree, than their peers who began their college careers at four-year institutions.

So what's wrong with reaching for the stars?

"Unrealistic plans may lead to a misuse of human potential and economic resources," Reynolds said. "For example, planning to become a medical doctor while making poor grades in high school means that preparation for other more probable vocations is likely to be postponed."

Like many cultural shifts in today's society, money may be at the root of the "college-for-all" attitude. Parents, high school counselors and others are giving students the message that a college degree is the only way to get a good job when, in fact, a skilled electrician or plumber can earn as much as say, a college professor, Reynolds said.

"Also, other researchers have found that although we are making more money than in the past, what counts for happiness is making more than your peers," he said. "This might also fuel irrational plans to work in top occupations."

John Reynolds | EurekAlert!
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