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2 myths about young people and college aspirations

A major political strategy to address educational disparities has been to raise the aspirations of young people with a low socioeconomic status (SES). Case in point: This entertaining video features a rapping FLOTUS encouraging youth to "go to college".

I don't dispute the core message -- that going to college is a way to discover one's intrinsic value and professional opportunities, and yes, young people should go to college. But two key assumptions implicit in this video (and in many U.S. initiatives to address educational inequities) are just plain wrong.

Assumption 1: Young people don’t aspire to go to college

The video opens with two young people expressing desires to “just hang out” after high school. While I know this very well may be the desire of some, it is not the desire of the majority. It’s important to distinguish between what young people desire for themselves and what they believe is actually achievable. For example, young people with low SES often attend schools without a college-going culture. They live in neighborhoods where no one has gone on to college and they come from families in which no one has benefited from education. Higher education is not part of their identity. So while they may desire a life that includes higher education, they might not believe that they belong in that world. In this case, we don’t need to raise aspirations, we need to help young people reset their views of themselves and truly understand what is achievable in their lives.

Assumption 2: Aspiration equals individual ambition

Aspirations and “dreams” (as FLOTUS references) are often viewed as an impetus for individual action to achieve desired futures no matter what the obstacle. But socio-economic and cultural factors enable some youth to pursue their aspirations more than others. In this view, acting on aspirations is highly integrated with the social arrangements in which the young person lives and interacts. When young people from low SES backgrounds run up against enough barriers, they begin to think they are on the wrong path and, despite their desires, they change course. Of course everyone needs to learn to overcome obstacles, but relying on inflated aspirations to carry youth to their desired futures is insufficient. Young people need resources (social, cultural and financial) and social supports as they navigate their educational trajectory.

Going to college is message I support enthusiastically. But videos, policies and programs that merely raise aspirations don’t help them get there. This is a deficit approach to educational inequities that attempts to equip young people with what others assume they lack -- a desire to live a life of value in and through education.

Let’s change this discourse. In what ways can we walk alongside youth as they sojourn their educational pathway in a way that supports their desires for themselves?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Hello Joanna,

    Thank you for posting this. I've seen this video in pieces a few times and it has been referenced many times on late shows as well. When I think about ways to support youth who come from communities with educational gaps...I look to community colleges. In White Earth, the White Earth Tribal and Community College has a rigorous curriculum, accredited programs, but it is also taught in the way that youth (and the community) is best taught. I use this example because I think that people need to see themselves getting an education and when they see their peers, neighbors, and leaders involved - this can be a way to walk with youth.


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