May 13, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 16

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    [barbara schneider]
    Barbara Schneider is co-author of The Ambitious Generation; America’s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless.

    Schneider’s research finds teens ambitious, but lacking direction

    By William Harms
    News Office

    New research shows today’s teen-agers are forming “the ambitious generation,” a group of young people eager to attend college, determined to get good jobs but often disappointed by the guidance they receive from parents and schools.

    More than any other group of teen-agers in history, youngsters are committed to attending college and expect to earn advanced degrees, according to a new book, The Ambitious Generation; America’s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless (Yale University Press), by Barbara Schneider, Professor in Sociology, and the late David Stevenson, who was assistant director for social and behavioral sciences at the White House. Often, however, high school students have insufficient information about the requirements for the jobs they seek, and as a result, do not make practical decisions when selecting and preparing for a career.

    The researchers suggest adults help students develop “aligned ambitions,” so youngsters can choose a career while in high school, learn what education is required for the job and then seek mentoring and internships to learn more about the occupations.

    “Students with high ambitions who choose an education path with low odds for successfully reaching their goals can make decisions from which it is difficult to recover,” Schneider said. “We believe that students with aligned ambitions are more likely to successfully navigate the transition from high school to college and to make choices that increase the chances that they will realize their dreams.”

    In addition to learning how students go about making career choices, the study also revealed details of other aspects of teen-age life in America and showed marked differences in the social lives, for instance, of this generation of teen-agers as compared to earlier generations.

    More than 90 percent of today’s high school seniors expect to attend some type of college, and 70 percent expect to work in professional jobs. During the 1950s, 55 percent expected to attend college, and 42 percent expected careers as professionals.

    The number of professional jobs available in the early part of the next century will not match the number of students who say as high school students they wish to become doctors, lawyers, business executives and other professionals. By contrast, the number of jobs expected to be available in service and administrative occupations is expected to grow faster than the number of adolescents who say they want to seek those jobs.

    About 56 percent of the students surveyed had misaligned ambitions, expecting to obtain more or less education than needed for a particular field. Many overestimated the amount of education required.

    Students entering community colleges increasingly see those schools as part of a path toward a four-year degree (70 percent of today’s students vs. 50 percent in 1982), but community colleges are increasingly less likely to help students make the transition. During the past 10 years, the probability that students will not receive a bachelor’s degree after first enrolling in a community college has increased by 20 percent.

    The failure of community colleges to help students reach their goals is part of an “ambition paradox” that plagues many young people, the study found. Students experience the ambition paradox when they have high ambitions but choose an educational route with low odds of success. In some cases, students are unfocused on a career as well as unaware of educational requirements, the book reports.

    The study also faulted the higher education system for some of the problems for community college students in particular. “The diversity of missions among four-year institutions and their different admissions and credit-transfer policies make it extraordinarily difficult for community and junior colleges to successfully channel students’ ambitions into coherent educational plans,” the book states.

    Students at all levels have difficulty making decisions about their futures. Counselors in high school often focus on college admissions and infrequently help students make decisions about future careers. Parents also fail to discuss careers thoroughly with their children, the authors discovered in interviews.

    The mismatch between work and preparation comes ironically at a time when more teen-agers are employed than ever before. Most teen-agers interviewed for the study, however, saw little connection between possible future careers and their high school jobs as low-paid workers in the service industry.

    Some students, whose experiences were presented as case studies in the book, did find jobs related to their future careers as well as internships that helped them learn more about the requirements of the occupations. According to the book, that work helped the students develop aligned ambitions.

    Having aligned ambitions does not limit career planning, the researchers said. “We found that students with aligned ambitions change their occupational interests over time. This is not surprising, since adolescence is a time when they try out different roles and discover their own talents and abilities,” Stevenson wrote. “There are benefits, however, to having aligned ambitions, even if adolescents change their occupational interests. One advantage of having aligned ambitions is that it helps adolescents to make meaningful choices.”

    The study was based on visits to 12 diverse high schools across the country. The book also drew from the Alfred P. Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development, a national, longitudinal study of 1,221 students based on interviews and other data garnered when they were in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades.

    In addition to interviews and questionnaires, researchers gathered information using an experience sampling technique, in which students were beeped at various times during the day and asked to record their activities and thoughts. The survey, conducted from 1992 to 1997, used the management resources of the National Opinion Research Center at the University.