College Is Still the Promised Land for High-School Students

Once they get on campus, though, it’s a whole different story.

Students walk on the Yale University campus.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The vast majority of high-school students still dream of pursuing higher education, but once inside the pearly gates of college, the view from above is far from idyllic.

According to the 2016 State of Our Nation’s Youth report, an annual survey conducted among high-schoolers and young adults ages 14 through 23, 90 percent of high-school students aspire to complete a college degree or certificate program—down slightly from 97 percent in 2012. The survey was commissioned by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, a nonprofit that was founded to highlight Americans who have succeeded despite adversity and emphasize the importance of higher education.

As a result of this drive to keep learning, high-school students’ chief stressors revolve around that next step of schooling: Of the high-school students surveyed, 75 percent said they felt pressure to do well in the classroom, 71 percent were concerned about their performance on standardized tests, and 67 percent said they had stress related to getting into college. Researchers said these concerns align with the idea that today’s young people see the world as inherently meritocratic—they are optimistic that hard work will pay off and concerned about their ability to succeed in the academic race.

“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.

“College works in terms of leading to substantial economic benefits,” Wolniak said. “That narrative gets lost in the midst of concerns—and legitimate concerns—around college costs.” However, Wolniak said that his research does indicate positive, and perhaps increasing, returns on investment as it relates to a college education.

The researchers also noted that because of the interconnected nature of the modern world, today’s young people are increasingly exposed to knowledge of society’s harsh realities. Pixel by pixel, they have amassed a global awareness that colors not only their school-related stressors, but also what they are worried about beyond the classroom—a shift that fundamentally changes the notion of young adulthood.

“Young people have been asked to grow up very quickly,” Hart said. “The world has been thrust upon them, not only in terms of competition of getting to places of higher education, but it is the stress of money, it is the stress of terrorism, it is the stress of race, it is the stress of climate change. All of those things have become an exceptionally important part of their lives and so not surprisingly, it isn’t a carefree time.”