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Funders Take Note: Philanthropy Can Do More to Support Student Aspirations

Date: May 25, 2023

Jen de Forest

Interim Vice President, YouthTruth

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Americans love a good success story and high school graduation season lends itself to tales of exceptional achievement as each spring brings a predictable stream of articles with clickbait titles like: “High school senior graduating two years early offered admission at 170 colleges” and “She was accepted by 54 colleges and got 1.3 million in scholarship offers.”

I think these stories are supposed to make us feel inspired, but as a lifelong educator, I find them deflating. Not only do they cast education as a sweepstakes but they imply that surely anyone who really wants to go to college can get at least one acceptance letter.

The reality is that while roughly 65 percent of American high school graduates each year “cross the stage” and proceed directly to college, the pathway to higher education is formidable for many young people — and, though it’s another story altogether, some young Americans are increasingly skeptical about what colleges have to offer, while others still are questioning the college-degree ROI.

In YouthTruth’s most recent report we explore which members of the class of 2023 want to go to college — and which actually expect to go to college. Funders take note: The changing patterns around high school graduates’ college-going expectations is about far more than fixing a leaky pipeline. Who goes to college and who does not go to college are well-established predictors of future earnings, social mobility, healthful behaviors, and even civic engagement. Consider the broad implications of just three of our findings about the future plans of graduates in the Class of 2023.

Finding 1: In this year’s graduating class, girls’ expectations for college (83 percent want to go to college, 77 percent expect to attend college) significantly outpace all of their classmates’, including boys (68 percent want to go to college, 57 percent expect to go to college).

Those expectation numbers are particularly strong predictors of enrollment, and they are very likely to manifest this fall in fewer young men on campus, reflecting widespread concern that colleges have a “guy problem.” The so-called guy problem is particularly acute at community colleges (more on community colleges below) and at HBCU’s. The implications here become clear when you add to the mix that while just one in three HBCU students tend to be a male, HBCU’s disproportionately educate black lawyers, judges, CEO’s, and even members of congress. 

Finding 2: When we consider the class of 2023’s college aspirations and expectations side-by-side by race, we see that for some groups there is a larger mismatch between wanting to go to college and actually expecting to enroll in college.

Asian or Asian-American students enjoy the most closely aligned future plans with only a five percent gap between their college aspirations and their expectations of enrollment. However, for Hispanic students, the aspiration-expectation mismatch nearly doubles to over nine percent — and it triples to 14 percent for students who are American Indian/Alaska Native/Indigenous.

Funders take note: Not only is this misalignment clear evidence of how elusive the college dream is for some groups of students, but, as researchers have shown, equity and mental health intersect meaningfully. These sorts of mismatches can sap a young person’s motivation, diminish self-efficacy, and even lead to depression — it’s a phenomenon researchers evocatively call quixotic hope.

Finding 3: Compared to their pre-pandemic peers in the class of 2019 this year’s graduates who are boys, Black, or Hispanic all report at significantly diminished percentages that they expect to attend community college. Since 2019 the percentage of Black seniors expecting to attend community college dropped from 25 to 17 percent, for Hispanic students from 34 to 27 percent, and for boys from 23 to 18 percent.

The diminished community college expectations for all three of these groups raise serious concerns, and they are particularly alarming for Black students who are increasingly underrepresented on America’s college campuses, and particularly at community colleges. So, too, is it troubling that fewer Hispanic students in the class of 2023 see community colleges as a real future option when compared to their pre-pandemic peers in the class of 2019.

Funders take note: “leveling up” funding to remove systemic barriers to higher education and support black learners to thrive in high school and beyond promotes healthy families and communities. Also, when we asked students what they need to align their expectations and aspirations they were replete with specific suggestions reminding us that youth are, in the end, the real experts on how the education system serves them well — and where it fails.

This takes us back to those headlines of exceptional achievement. When we asked students to provide feedback on the college process they are clear that, far from a college sweepstakes, they want an inclusive high-school-to-higher-education transition process that includes real tuition transparency and sustained support — support that extends far beyond filing applications to include the opportunity to visit college campuses, advice on first-year courses, demystifying campus life, and even help securing a dorm room. They also want advice from current college students who they can see themselves in and not just from the super achievers. Funders take note: even in the face of challenge and through the pandemic, three out of four seniors still want to attend college. That aspiration is a terrible thing to waste.

Jennifer de Forest, Ed.D., is director of organizational learning and communication at YouthTruth. YouthTruth is an initiative of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Find YouthTruth on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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