Though the financial benefits of obtaining a college degree are well documented, soaring student loan debt has many debating if it’s worth it. New research from Michigan State University finds that expectations and aspirations in high school may play an important role in students’ career paths later in life.
According to Soobin Kim, author of the study and a researcher at the MSU College of Education, students need to be thinking about careers while in high school.
“Without a vision for their future, students can flounder, incur a lot of debt and obtain education that will not help them in the career they desire,” Kim said. “It’s clear that the choices students make in high school matter later in life.”
Published in the Journal of Higher Education, Kim finds that high school students who have aligned ambitions – high post-secondary educational expectations and a good idea of what career they want – have better long-term future career outcomes and wages. He also found that students who expected to obtain more education than was needed for their desired career earned higher wages and more occupational prestige later in life.
Conversely, the research found that students who expected to obtain less education than was necessary for their desired career had worse career outcomes and lower wages.
So, what do these findings mean for students who are getting ready to go back to school?
“Students need to understand the benefits and costs of pursuing more education after high school, but also how education fits into their career plans,” Kim said. “It’s important for them to be exposed to different careers, other than the usual ones, and understand how technology is creating new careers. As the job landscape evolves, students must be equipped with the information to make wise educational choices so that they can acquire whatever skills they need to succeed after college.”
Kim said students’ interests should be factored into decisions about postsecondary education, and people in their lives – parents, teachers and counselors – should help them explore careers related to those interests and help determine what types of education would be required.
Generally, if parents did not attend college, their children often attend schools that lack counseling resources on education and occupational options, and this is problematic, Kim said.
“The research shows that students from traditionally underserved groups see some of the largest benefits from being ambitious,” he said. “Therefore, we need to improve resources for schools that serve large proportions of disadvantaged and underprepared students.”
Lastly, Kim and colleagues suggest that schools could benefit from employing psychological interventions that help students envision their futures and persist through setbacks.
“Many students change their educational and occupational plans after they leave high school, so being able to adapt to life changes is an important skill for students to develop,” Kim said.
Kim’s co-authors are Christopher Klager and Barbara Schneider, both with MSU.