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Bridging the higher ed aspiration-achievement gap

By Joanna Tzenis

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
The capability approach is about expanding real options available to young people to pursue their aspirations. What are your strategies for supporting youth aspirations to higher education?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Interesting thoughts Joanna. I know you recently hosted a campus immersion program for young people. I suspect that experience cultivates the young person's aspirations. Do similar experiences increase youth motivation and and ability to make authentic choices as well? Have you had a chance to look through youth evaluations to see if their reflections were supportive of higher ed campus exposure to heighten aspirations, increase motivation and make authentic choices to pursue higher education?

  2. Joanna, Loved reading this post knowing you are immersed in living it this week! Guiding youth in discovering or clarifying what they aspire to is critical, as is our role as non formal educators or volunteers: to "exercise aspirations as a navigational capacity." I will be curious to hear which pieces of your immersion and the portfolio building exercises most resonated with the youth. I believe we can all get much more intentional in nurturing aspirations for higher ed and career pathway options!

  3. Great points. I think many of us have seen the impact that mentors and adult volunteers engaging with youth on a long-term basis can have. These type of relationships are difficult for organizations to maintain. Your post highlights that those difficulties pay dividends in youth motivation to achieve their higher education goals. Can short term experiences provide similar motivation? Or should we be looking for ways to stay connected with youth in short term experiences so that we can maintain motivation?

  4. Hello Melissa, Ann and Betsy. I want to thank each of you for your comments as well as for your patience as I wrapped up the campus immersion program that concluded at the end of last week.

    Melissa: We haven’t had a chance to look through the data collected and I am chomping at the bit to get to it. I can tell you this: I don’t think we had “heightened aspirations,” per se. The young people entered this experience full of aspirations. However, I did see young people grounding their aspirations and coming up with a real plan on how they can start acting toward aspiration achievement. For example, a young person who has been set on becoming a doctor now has plans to achieve a certain grade point average this upcoming school year and to meet with his guidance counselor about these plans on a regular basis. He is making his aspiration more relevant and timely and is learning the ways he can take action now, rather than only thinking about the future with hope.

    Anne: I observed the most thoughtful and at times debated conversations when the youth participants went through the “Higher Education Obstacle Course.” Young people were asked to come up with strategies to real obstacles they may face on their pathway to higher education. For example, one scenario presented a situation where a young people was conflicted about whether a she should stay at home after high school and earn much needed money for her family or go away to college. The depth to which young people examined this scenario was quite incredible. While some young people were quick to say “go to college no matter what,” most young people voiced the importance of family loyalty. Some young people worked together to come up with ways in which they could earn while still attending college, others worked on crafting an argument to their family about how in the long run, they will be able to earn more once they get their college degree. My point here is not to advocate one solution over the other, but rather to illustrate that young people are thinking critically and reflexively about real obstacles they might face. They continued to talk about these obstacles and the strategies they might employ throughout the remainder of the week.

    Betsy: That is a great question! I do believe that short-term experiences provide a spark of motivation and an impetus to act. However, without any follow-up, I can imagine that that intrinsic motivation will fade. (Anyone who has dieted, trained for a race, etc., can relate to the ups and downs of working toward a goal!) Now, it may not be feasible for an organization to maintain the same mentors with youth on a long-term basis, however, systems can be put in place to help sustain motivation. Perhaps a partnership with in which school guidance counselors meet with youth regularly about their plans could aid in the process of sustaining motivation. To answer your question in brief, yet, I do believe organization should be looking for ways to stay connected to youth in some capacity after short-term experiences to sustain their motivation.


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