“No one wants to be just a high-school graduate anymore. This is a sense of, ‘How far can I go and how high can I rise?’” Peter Hart, the founder of Hart Research Associates, which helped conduct the survey, said. “If you grew up in the ‘60s or you grew up in the ‘70s, it was a very, very different world. But growing up today, all of the stresses and what these people are going through essentially have to do with, ‘how do I perform?’”
And yet, once these teens are out of high school, their worries become less academic; the main source of stress for recent high-school graduates, according to the survey, was financial, with 80 percent of respondents reporting that the pressure to make ends meet was either a major or minor problem. For the older respondents in their early 20s, access to health care, feelings of depression, and personal safety concerns were the next largest worries —none of which were articulated as the biggest issues among their high-school counterparts.
It’s evident that today’s young people are inherently aware of the return on investment provided by a college education, a return that amounts to growth in income by about 15 to 20 percent, said Gregory Wolniak, the director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes and an associate professor of higher education at New York University’s Steinhardt School. High-school students, based on their reported stressors, are willing to work for that gain, but once they actually finish their secondary education, the harsh realities of the world away from home are heavy. This is further reflected in the findings that while 67 percent of high-school students said they were learning necessary life skills in the classroom, just 49 percent of graduates reported that high school prepared them to be successful.
“College aspirations run up against the realities of the system—notably, the college financial aid, college costs challenges that students face,” Wolniak, who helped conduct the survey, said. “It’s a classic situation where you have aspirations on the one hand and then reality on the other. So there is going to be a curbing of some of those positive senses of preparation once you get into the classroom, get on campus, and experience the rigors of college life.”
The concerns reported by the high-school graduates add to the national conversation surrounding what Wolniak called “the college cost disease.” The United States’ student-loan debt has climbed above $1.3 trillion, and although students may be interested in pursuing higher education, the financial burdens associated with that pursuit are suffocating.
As the problems of student loans and college costs have increasingly become a political issue and promises of free college have rung out on the campaign trail, high-school students have certainly been made aware of these financial pressures. Survey respondents reflected this as well, with 67 percent of high-school students reporting some level of concern for financing college. And yet, young people are still motivated to stay in school—and for good reason, Wolniak said.