Life After High School

In its latest report, the always-valuable organization Public Agenda has surveyed young Americans to find out what they think about “Life After High School.” Specifically, the organization wanted to know how young people make decisions about what to do after they graduate. Go to college? Get a job?

Much of what Public Agenda found you could predict without doing a survey. These young adults believed in the value of a college degree. They credited inspiration from adults, especially their parents, as important in making college decisions. And, the report says, “financial pressures force most college-bound African-Americans and Hispanics to compromise on college choices.”

An interesting choice of words. As it happens, “financial pressures” forced me to compromise on college choices. My father was willing to pay college tuition for a girl, but not to pay Radcliffe tuition _ though in 1957 the difference was only a few hundred dollars a year and he spent more than that on country-club dues. He was a lawyer.

I didn’t think that was fair then, and I don’t now, but there was nothing I could do about it. And looking back nearly half a century later, I know my life turned out differently as a result, but I can’t make a case that it turned out worse.

More broadly, “financial pressures” force most people, most of the time, to compromise on what they want. People say, “If I had enough money, I’d quit this job tomorrow.” They rent an apartment or buy a house based on what they can afford, and so on down to the smallest decisions about what and when to buy.

The report says money “plays a big role” in decisions about whether to attend college. “Nearly half of young people who don’t continue their education after high school cite lack of money, the wish to earn money or having other responsibilities” as the reason they don’t continue their education. But those three categories really aren’t very similar in terms of their implications for public policy. If you need money to help out your parents, you need it now, not in four years.

Among those who do go on to college, the differences by race and ethnicity are less stark than I would have supposed. Forty percent of white Americans, 50 percent of Asian-Americans and 60 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics say “they would have attended a different college if money was not an issue.”

I’d be interested to see those figures reanalyzed to take account of family structure. Single-parent households are much more likely to be low-income than two-parent households, and far more black children are raised in single-parent households than are children in other groups.

The survey says “prospects for young workers without college degrees” are troubling. These less-educated workers “fell into their jobs more by chance than by choice and far fewer think of their job as a career.”

But doesn’t that describe most of us? The job I have would count as a career-type job, but I fell into it partly by chance at the age of 50 and I don’t think that counts. It certainly isn’t what I prepared for, except in the sense that doing a lot of different jobs for a few years at a time turned out to be good preparation for writing about a lot of different subjects.

Similarly large proportions of all racial and ethnic groups, around 80 percent, agreed that “people respect you more when they know you’ve graduated from college.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that _ it sounds like a rather adolescent way of looking at matters _ but I’m certain I don’t agree with what the report sees as the implications. “These findings,” it says, “counter the belief of some that large numbers of minority youth denigrate academic success.” Only tiny percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics “say that graduating from college is something their circle of friends looks down on.”

Maybe not, in the abstract future. But in the concrete present, as John Ogbu documented in his study of Shaker Heights, Ohio, there is a lot of pressure on black students to behave in ways that guarantee they won’t graduate from college, though that’s no one’s intention. And Rocky Mountain News columnist Tina Griego has reported from Denver’s North High School that large numbers of Hispanic students there have a circle of friends who think it’s cool to ditch school.

The survey also points out a different demographic “fault line.” Men are much more likely than women to say they didn’t go to college “because they’d had enough of school” or wanted to work and earn money. And men who did go to college were less likely than women to say they really liked being in school.

There’s no law, of course, that says college-educated women have to marry college-educated men. But by and large they do, and a shortage of men they’ll consider eligible is a lot more troubling to me than the likelihood that some people will have jobs rather than careers.

(Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News at