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Cultural Capital And Teen Ambitions

September 1 2010 - A recent study by Kristin Jordan, doctoral student at Indiana University Bloomington's department of sociology presented to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association found found that low-income or minority status students prepare for college in a different way to their more privileged counterparts, regardless of academic ability or future plans.

The author explains that processes such as SAT prep courses [the most widely taken college entrance examination in the U.S.] are a vital part of getting into a four-year, selective college program. Taking preparation courses increases the likelihood of attending such a college (regardless of final test scores).

The study found that children of middle-class, college-educated parents possess 'cultural capital'. They tend to take full advantage of such systems because they are aware of their importance and know how to access them. Less privileged students are over-represented in community colleges and are more likely to have parents who were not college educated.

Kristin Jordan commented:

"Greater availability for college preparation and SAT preparation, without having to pay extra hundreds of dollars to get an extra point on the SAT to get in a top college, is the kind of program that would make it more equal for all students."

Teens Are Too Ambitious

The goals of many teens exceed their likely achievements, leading to wasted time and resources, not to mention anxiety and distress, according to a 2006 study in the journal Social Problems by John Reynolds, professor of sociology at Florida State University.

Co-authored by graduate students Michael Stewart, Ryan MacDonald and Lacey Sischo, the study analyzed data from several national surveys to compare changes in high school senior students' educational and occupational plans between 1976 and 2000 and found a widening gap between goals and actual achievements.

Reynolds said:

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

The study found that high school senior students in 2000 were much more ambitious than their 1976 counterparts. In 2000 50 per cent planned to continue their education after college to get an advanced degree compared to 26 per cent in 1976. In 2000 63 per cent planned to work in a professional job - such as doctor, lawyer, college professor, accountant or engineer - by the age of 30, compared to 41 per cent in 1976. Other categories were laborer, farmer or homemaker; service, sales or clerical; operative or crafts; military or protective services; entrepreneur; and administrator or manager.

The percentage of high school graduates between 25 and 30 who actually earned advanced degrees remained fairly consistent. The gap between expectations of achieving such a degree and what is realistic grew from 22 percentage points in 1976 to 41 percentage points in 2000.

The researchers attribute the senior students' unrealistic expectations to "the declining influence of grades and high school curricula and the increasing number who plan to go to community college as an educational stepping-stone to a first degree and beyond". Evidence suggests that such students are much less likely to complete even a first degree, compared to those beginning their college careers at four-year institutions.

John Reynolds commented:

"Unrealistic plans may lead to a misuse of human potential and economic resources. 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.

"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. This might also fuel irrational plans to work in top occupations."


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