The Truth About Their College Aspirations

It’s time to clear up a certain myth about teens that seems to be cropping up a lot lately. The myth is that all teens go on to be college students, and then college graduates. It’s a common assumption among marketers and advertisers that teens aspire to attend college, and if you want to reach 18 and 19 year olds, you’ll find them on college campuses. Even a recent article in The New York Times suggests that a college degree is the new high school diploma, noting “so many people are going to college now.” 

While it is true that Millennials are the most educated generation in American history, many people are astonished to learn that people with college degrees are still a significant minority.

Let’s start at the beginning: a recently released study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 96% of female high school seniors and 90% of male high school seniors wanted to go to college as of 2004. That’s certainly the vast majority of seniors, although already 1 in 10 guys have no interest in attaining a college education. 



But when push comes to shove, only 55% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned a degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey. The remaining 45% aren’t in college for a variety of reasons — from being unable to afford tuition, to choosing to enter the workforce, to failing to complete high school (16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t earned a high school diploma). 

And, of course, enrolling in college doesn’t mean they’ll graduate. In fact, only 32% of 25-34 year olds held a college degree in 2011, including 28% of men and 36% of women that age.

So why is it that so many high schoolers want to go to college but so few end up with degrees? One factor for their wanting to attend college is a cultural mindset that values education over other skills. Their parents encourage them to go to college. In addition, the high school educational system is designed to groom students for college; they’re encouraged early on to think about their post-secondary education and reminded that their high school grades matter to get into a good school. It’s assumed they’re going to college. However, when they graduate and enter the “real world,” they realize that other career paths are open to them, which some choose (and some are forced by circumstances) to explore. 

With the Millennial spirit of entrepreneurialism, today’s teens may be even more likely than their parents’ generation to consider alternative careers, forgoing college or dropping out to found their own companies or turn a part-time job or hobby into a business. Today’s teens can name any number of personal heroes who have launched their careers from a young age and without degrees, including Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Tavi Gevinson, and any number of reality TV stars. Moreover, as digital natives at ease online, it’s never been easier to start a business, get noticed, or get funding, even as a teen.

4 comments about "The Truth About Their College Aspirations".
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  1. Philip Hayes from Hayes Unlimited, February 21, 2013 at 11:18 a.m.

    Well done article.

    It seems to me that many colleges and universities are trade schools in disguise.

    English, history, and other humanities are being minimalized.

    Many institutions of higher education want to be considered research institutions. That's where the money is.

  2. Alex Lekas from PTI Security, February 21, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.

    and once in college, will they major in something useful that leads a job or some touchy-feely curriculum that leads to a useless degree and a lot of debt? Not everyone is geared for a four-year institution. A good many people would be far better off with a two-year program.

    A lot of college students find out that professors stick to their rules and having parents call to complain about grades or assignments is bad strategy. Others figure out they lack the maturity to be responsible for themselves at 18 or 19. And, a large portion are so poorly prepared for higher ed that remedial coursework is more the rule than the exception.

    College is not a panacea, it is a means but only if you know what the end is. It may not be for everybody and it may not be right immediately after high school. Often, students do much better after spending a few years working or in the military and gaining some maturity. Doing so makes 8am classes much less of a grind.

  3. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, February 21, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.

    A couple of thoughts:

    College should be considered a lifelong opportunity -- not everyone is ready for it at 18 but maybe at 28 or 38 or 58. If we look at education as a lifelong process, not being ready at 18 is not a failure.
    -- what is useful study for one person may not be for another. My English-major at a liberal arts college daughter-in-law has done more with her degree in the New York media buying world than I have with my business administration degree.
    -- college is for education; nothing you study is in vain and more topics than you would think can be applied to different endeavors.
    -- and if you really do not want to be in college, just keep learning anyway.

  4. Ngoc T from Iowa, March 7, 2013 at 8:43 a.m.

    Many should consider public institutions compared to the more endowed and well known private schools that charge much more. And one of the best bargains still available are those junior colleges that allow transfer credits to universities. Just be sure those credits are transferrable! College credit in high school can also save ten thousand dollars or more, but it means getting serious early in life. College isn't for everyone, but it can be a life changer for better or worst. Take advantage of scholarships. Avoid excessive student loans that will KILL YOU and your FUTURE! Listen to advice, but know that those who make money from ed, well... make money from ed, and may not give advice in your best interest. Great presentation of stats, Melanie. And thumbs up to all the commentors. Great discussion.

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