One of the most notable trends in education today is the change in teens' attitudes toward college and careers. The majority of U.S. teen-agers see a clear path from high school to college to a first-rate job. In 1983, a Gallup Youth Survey* showed only 46% of teens planned to go to college full time. By 2001, that number had jumped to 63%**. Of those students not planning on attending college full time, 24% still want to further their education by only attending college part time.
Fewer teens expect to start working full time directly after high school. In 1983, 15% expected to immediately start working full time -- now only 4% plan to do so.
It appears that teens are not just aspiring toward lofty goals, but are following through on their plans to attend college. According to the most recent U. S. Census Bureau data, 8,888,000*** students are currently enrolled in college full time, an increase of nearly 2 million students from the 7,075,000 who were enrolled in 1985.
Does this upswing in enrollment indicate an increase in American youths' thirst for intellectual challenges? Probably not. A 1979 Gallup study indicated that, at that time, teen-agers chose careers for financial stability, personal aptitude and long-term security. Kids today do exactly the same thing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1999 the average earnings of an adult with a bachelor's degree were $45,678. By contrast, the average earnings among adults with high school diplomas only were $24,572.
In 1979^, Gallup asked teens whether they would rather be a skilled blue-collar worker making $30,000 a year or a white-collar worker making $20,000 a year. Two-thirds (66%) opted for the skilled-worker option. This feeling was constant regardless of age or academic standing, but boys and children of blue-collar households were slightly more likely to favor the blue-collar choice. The minority who chose white-collar work weren't disinterested in money, but rather they figured success would come eventually after working their way up the corporate ladder.
These days, boys and girls have remarkably similar career plans -- four of their first and second career choices (computer, lawyer, business and musician) matched in a list of 10. This indicates a noteworthy change over the last quarter century: a major push toward academic gender equity (particularly in math and science) in the 1990s, culminating in 1994's Gender Equity in Education Act, has resulted in vastly expanded career options for girls. In 1977, the first career choice of girls was "secretary," the second, "teacher," and the third was "nurse." Today, girls first, second and third choices are "teacher," "lawyer," and "doctor," respectively. The last time "secretary" appeared on the national girl's list was 1988.
In 1979, teens between the ages of 13 and 17 were significantly more likely to hope for a secure, high-paying job as a blue-collar worker. Today, kids are looking toward careers in computers or medicine. But a change in career plans does not necessarily represent a change in values or overall lifetime goals. Career choices reflect society and changing technology, but individual goals -- such as job security and a decent income -- are constant. The interesting finding is that now, teens are more likely to see college as the way to get there.
*Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national cross-section of 506 teen-agers, ages 13 to 18, conducted in December 1982. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 5 percentage points.
**Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national cross-section of 501 teen-agers, ages 13 to 17, conducted December 2000 through February 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 5 percentage points.
***U. S. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, annual, and Projections of Education Statistics, annual.
^Findings are based on telephone interviews with a representative national sample of 1,115 teen-agers, ages 13 to 18, in 1979. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points.