Many young people aspire to go to college, but there’s a gap between aspirations for higher education and actually enrolling. This is an important gap to address because lower levels of educational attainment are associated with higher levels of poverty.
Here are the numbers: In the U.S. in 2011, a higher percentage of young adults without a high school diploma (31 percent) were living in poverty than those who had completed high school (24 percent) and those who had earned a bachelor’s or higher degree (14 percent) (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).
So why is there a gap? Most young people look toward their futures with hope and ambition, but some have more opportunities to bring their aspirations to life than others. This is an issue that we in non-formal education programs are well equipped to address.
The capability approach
In past blog posts, I’ve introduced the capability approach -- my primary conceptual lens for research and practice. The core idea behind it is whether young people have real options to pursue their goals and aspirations -- or simply the illusion of choice. This approach to education promotes expanding opportunities that support youth taking calculated action to pursue their aspirations.
Here are some ways in which non-formal programs might help young people bring their aspirations to reality:
- Find frequent opportunities for youth to explore their aspirations. Appadurai considers aspirations a navigational capacity. Aspirations prompt future oriented actions, but often, the poor have fewer opportunities to explore concrete pathways to their aspirations, which eventually leads the fading of their aspirations. Help youth find opportunities to visit campuses, meet with current students, or even engage in internet searches around their aspirations. Aspirations can only guide young people to success if they have frequent opportunities to exercise aspirations as a navigational capacity.
- Have a long-term plan to help them sustain motivation. Aspiration for one’s future is too often conflated with motivation, but aspirations do not ensure motivation to act. Larson finds that things like poverty, dangerous neighborhoods and low-quality schooling experiences impede the intrinsic motivation youth might have to work towards improving their lives. For that reason, it’s important that young people have adult volunteers and mentors who engage with them on a long-term basis to nurture aspirations and continually seek out ways to support motivation amidst obstacles.
- Allow them to authentically reflect on their higher education choices. The capability approach refers to the options a person has to pursue what they consider valuable. Having a college degree is inarguably associated with overcoming disadvantage and gaining control of one’s life. However, we have to be careful not to mandate it. Pursuing higher education should be a genuine choice Support young people in reflecting on their values and their personal biographies and finding ways to recognize higher education as intrinsically valuable to them.
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