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 Duke University

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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

A Qualitative Study of Socioeconomic Status, Post-secondary Education Plans, and Educational Aspirations of Students from a Michigan Public School*


Brian J. Thomas

Saginaw Valley State University


    This study was conducted to provide sociological data to support the Bay Commitment Scholarship, a pilot project whose primary goal is to enhance the post-secondary educational attainment of students from the Bay City Public School District.  Given the strong positive correlation between educational attainment and socioeconomic benefits to a community, the secondary goal of this pilot is to fuel the regional economy by helping more students attend college—specifically Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University.  The role of higher education on the social mobility of individuals and communities is profound.  As Karen and Dougherty note, "in 2002, adults without a high school degree on average, earned less than $19,000 per year, while those with a BA averaged between $60,000 and $74,000 depending on racial background (2005: 34)." 

    This study provides specific information regarding students' post-secondary educational goals, factors that influence post-secondary educational decisions, and steps that students and parents have taken related to post-secondary education by the 11th and 12th grades.  The first phase of this study involved a survey that focused on students' goals and steps that they have taken related to post-secondary education.  The second phase of this study, the results of which are described here, involved follow up interviews with survey respondents.  These interviews, which were conducted in person, involved in-depth questions related to the decision making process surround graduation and post-secondary education.  Interviews were conducted with both current high school seniors and recent graduates.  These interviews involved questions related to students' college plans as well as details regarding the timing of those plans and the influence of finances, family, friends, and other factors on those decisions.

Literature Review

    In their study of higher education attainment of different socio-economic groups, Ellwood and Kane state "The old adage 'To get a good job, get a good education,' is more true today than at any time in a generation (2000: 285)."  They argue the truth of this statement by demonstrating not only that higher education is necessary to obtain a job in today's society, but also that there is a growing income gap between those of lower and higher educations.  In other words, not only is continuing education after high school increasingly necessary to get a job, but the failure to obtain this education will have a more significant impact on incomes than a generation ago.

    Ellwood and Kane's findings do not come as a great surprise and are supported by a great deal of other empirical research into the topic of education and social status (Ashenfelter, Harmon, and Oosterbeek 1999; Crosnoe, Mistry, and Elder 2002; Duncan, Yeung, Brooks-Gunn, and Smith 1998; Karen and Dougherty 2005; Schwartz 2007).  In the state of Michigan, where the economy remains heavily dependent on a declining American automotive industry, graduating high school students can no longer count on middle-class jobs with General Motors or Ford.  For individuals, increasing educational attainment is a necessary component of increasing, or at the very least maintaining, lifestyle standards between generations.  Who, after all, desires to achieve a standard of living lower than one's parents?  Or, who wishes a lower standard of living upon one's children?  At the community level, the increase, or maintenance, or standards of living between subsequent generations is a key component to economic, social, and cultural viability.

    Unfortunately, the link between education and critical elements of living standards, such as income, do not lead to straightforward conclusions.  As Karen and Dougherty (2005) point out, education is a necessary prerequisite to social mobility.  However, education alone is not necessarily sufficient to trigger an increase in living standards.  The authors highlight income differences between whites and racial minorities with similar educations.  They state, for example, that "among those with a BA, whites earn 24 percent more than blacks and 28 percent more than Latinos (33)."  This illustrates the fact that other social factors, such as race and ethnicity, play a role in success.  Similarly, Carnevale and Rose highlight the relationship between type of college attended and measures such as wage premiums in the labor market (2004).  As with Karen and Dougherty, Carnevale and Rose found that racial and ethnic minorities were frequently under-represented in prestigious four year universities and, consequently, not able to take advantage of the benefits of prestigious institutions, such as greater access to graduate studies and wage premiums.

    In many ways, these finding support Ellwood and Kane's comments about the growing importance of higher education in a changing society.  They just highlight the fact that education is not, inevitably, the key to success.  Attending college may, in fact, have a minimal impact on adult success or lead only to maintaining a standard of living.  A variety of other factors, such as racial and ethnic status, also influence life success.  Still, in the vast majority of the cases, the failure to pursue higher education will lead to either maintaining ones socioeconomic status, at best, or, what is more likely the case, a reduction in socioeconomic status as students' fail to remain competitive in a society of increasing educational standards.  While some students may dream of successful drop college drop outs like Bill Gates, the reality is that his story is outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been compromised by an inability to obtain a college degree.

    Education may not be enough to ensure success.  However, a failure to obtain a post-secondary education certainly makes success very unlikely.  Put simply, education matters.  It matters for people and it matters for communities.  Why, then, do more people not pursue more education?  This question is of central concern to many social science researchers as well as a central element of this study.  In 2002, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled "Rift Grows Over What Keeps Low-Income Students Out of College" (Burd 2002).  In this article, Burd explores the scholarly and political debate that exists over the relative influence of money and preparation on the ability of low-income students to enter college.  On one side are those who would suggest that rising college tuition costs in the context of declining financial aid has made college too expensive for many students.  On the other side are those who argue that it is an issue of insufficient preparation which is manifest in low grades and lack of knowledge about what is necessary to enter college.

    There is certainly evidence to suggest that financial limitations are one factor serving as an obstacle to educational achievement.  First of all, college tuition rates have increased dramatically in the past few decades.  Heller notes that "Average tuition prices at public four-year colleges and universities increased 732 percent between 1976 and 2004, while they increased 634 percent at community colleges and 693 percent at private four-year institutions (Heller 2005: 83)."  Some scholars, such as Swartz (2007) have suggested that changes in financial aid have offset some of these increases.  While this may be the case, there has also been a shift in the types of financial aid that are available.  Notably, financial aid for college shifted in the 1990s away from need-based funding towards merit based funding.  In many cases, the consequence of this was a reduction in aid that is available to those who would have financially benefited most from a college education.  While the relative balance of rising tuition costs against financial aid can be debated, there has been a clear shift in the college enrollment of students' of different socioeconomic statuses.

    Based upon national level data, Haven and Wilson found that "In sum, the allocation of higher education services, especially the highest quality of these services, is rather highly concentrated among youths from families with the highest economic status and this concentration appears to be increasing over time (2007:20)."  Ellwood and Kane found that the role of family income on enrollment in higher education has in fact increased over time suggesting that the influence of cost on higher education enrollment is a growing problem (2000).  Similarly, a national survey by Ikenberry and Hartle found that the price of higher education was a significant concern for the public (1998).  Notably however, most people still considered higher education to be a "good value" for the money.

    The role of cost on college decisions is not simply one of tuition.  As Scwartz explains "Opportunity costs are, on the whole, far larger and more important to many students than out-of-pocket costs, particularly for low-income students for whom scholarships and financial aid are significant (2007:158)."  Opportunity costs refer to the financial opportunities that are given up to pursue another activity.  One example might be giving up or reducing hours at a minimum wage job to attend college.  While the long term financial benefits might outweigh the costs, the opportunity cost might be too expensive if giving up the minimum wage job might lead to homelessness or other significant life changes.  Similarly, it is important that we recognize the transaction costs associated with college.  Transaction costs refer to those additional costs that are incurred that are necessary for an education, but not part of the education.  The transaction cost of driving to school each day, for instance, is often a greater burden to low- versus high-income students.

    Still, the role of cost on college attendance is not straightforward.  While Berkner and Chavez found, similar to Haven and Wilson, that there are economic difference among college students in terms of enrollment rates, these differences are eliminated among those students who have taken the college entrance examinations and completed an application for admission, the two steps necessary to attend a four-year college (1997).  These results, which were obtained from a longitudinal study of 1992 high school graduates, are poignant because it highlights two important, non-economic, behavioral factors that could be limiting college enrollment rates.  Getting students to overcome the dual hurdles of entrance exams and application for admission could alleviate some of the enrollment differences that are caused by different economic factors.

    Despite common political wrangling around the relative influence of money and preparation in terms of college success, it is important that we understand these as two much related issues.  The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is famous for his work on the relationship between economic status and culture, where he demonstrates that tastes and preferences are strongly influenced by one's socio-economic status (Bourdieu 1984).  Bourdieu's point is that financial factors themselves shape, and in some cases, limit our behaviors and preferences.  The tendency for socio-economic background to influence enrollment in higher education is illustrated by Duncan, Yeung, Brooks-Gunn, and Smith (1998).  In their research, the authors demonstrate that childhood socioeconomic status can have a significant influence on educational attainment, even when people engage in social mobility later in life.  In other words, money matters both because it limits simple ability to pay, but also because it shapes the cultural preferences and behaviors related to successful participation in higher education.

    This review of a small portion of the literature on factors leading to students choosing to pursue or not pursue higher education is important as it serves as a framework for understanding potential ways in which that behavior could be altered.  This review highlights the combined influence of financial factors, such as limited income relative to costs, as well as cultural factors that may impede standardized test taking and/or applying for admission.  While the change in 2008 within the state of Michigan to require all students to take the ACT, may reduce one of these barriers many obstacles still exist for students to succeed in the realm of higher education.

Study Site

    The Bay City Public School District is a public school district encompassing Bay City and the city of Auburn.  The school district is one of four school districts that service Bay County, Michigan.  It is the largest public school district in the county.  The school district consists of three high schools, one of which, the Wenona Center, is a small alternative high school.  The other two high schools, Central High School and Western High School have approximately 3,000 students combined.  Approximately 1,300 students are in the 11th and 12th grades. 

    Bay City is a midsized city located in mid-Michigan.  US Census 2000 provides some information on the region.  The city itself has a population of 36,817 although the school district that is examined in this study serves a larger area.  The population of the entire county surrounding the school district is 110,157.  The county is predominantly white (94.9%) with relatively few Hispanic or Latinos (3.9%).  Twenty-five percent of the population is under the age of 18, which is slightly higher than the state percentage of 26%.

    Education and income levels for the region are somewhat lower than the rest of the state.  According to the 2000 US Census for Bay County, only 14.2% of the population age 25 or older has a college degree.  This is well below the US average of 24.4% and the Michigan average of 21.8%.  Furthermore, according to Michigan Literacy, Inc. 15% of the adults in Bay County have Level 1 literacy (National Institute for Literacy 1998).  Level 1 literacy is generally equated to a 5th grade reading and writing level.  The median income for the county is only $38,425, compared to a state median of $44,667.  Economic disparity relative to the state is even more pronounced in the city itself, where the median income is only $30,425.

    There are several universities and colleges in the region surrounding the Bay City School District.  Delta College is a two-year community college with an enrollment of about 11,000 students.  Saginaw Valley State University is a four-year university with enrollments of approximately 10,000 students.  Students attending both Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University typically come from the region surrounding the universities and both are located 10 to 20 miles from each of the Bay City School District high schools.  A few smaller colleges, such as Davenport University and Northwood University, are also located very close to Bay City School District.


     Eight interviews were conducted as part of this research project.  An initial sampling frame of potential interviewees was constructed based upon respondents to a 2008 survey.  In order to obtain information about the college decision making process of both students who were likely to attend and succeed in college and those who were more likely to encounter difficulties, the sampling frame was stratified into two groups.  Initially, this project was designed so that stratification could be based upon those planning on attending college and those who were not planning on attending college.  However, since nearly all the survey respondents indicated that they were planning on attending college, this was not a viable option.

    Consequently, the sampling frame was stratified into two groups based upon those who anticipated achieving high levels of education and those anticipating achieving relatively low levels of education.  These two groups were coded as "Anticipating high educational achievement" and "Anticipating low educational achievement" (for convenience they are referred to as "high achievers" and "low achievers" in this report.  Please note that this designation is not an indicator of actual educational achievement or potential educational achievement, but rather students' perception of future education achievement.  The former group consisted of survey respondents who indicated that they were expecting to achieve professional or graduate degrees.  The latter group, which was much smaller, consisted of students who indicated that they would only achieve an education consisting of some college or associates degrees.  Since the second sampling frame consisted of approximately 20 students and the academic achievement criteria was felt to be too limiting, students who neither parent had attended college and who were receiving free or reduced lunches were also added to this pool.

    From each of the two pools, an equal number of members of the class of 2008 and 2009 were randomly selected.  Interviewees were contacted by through telephone numbers provided by the Bay City Public School District.  Interviewees were also offered $20 gift certificates to book stores as incentives to participate.  Significant problems were encountered in the process of contacting students.  Several phone numbers of randomly selected students were unlisted, some phone numbers were no longer correct, and several people opted not to participate in the interview.  In total, thirty-eight member of the low achievement pool and twenty-four members of the high-achievement pool were contacted for interviews.

    A total of eight interviews were finally conducted.  Five of these interviews were with members of the low-achievement pool and four were from the high achievement pool.  Two of the low achievement pool interviews were with members of the class of 2009 while the remaining three interviews were with members of the class of 2010. All three of the high achievers that were interviewed were members of the class of 2010.  Table 1 provides a summary of the students who were interviewed.

Table 1
Class Standing and High School Attended by Interviewees

Class of
Class of 
High School

    Interviews lasted from 45 minutes to nearly 2 hours.  Interviews were conducted in locations that were convenient to interviewees—typically at their high school or college.  Interviews were also conducted in nearby restaurants and public libraries.  After interviews were completed, they were transcribed and transcriptions were coded to identify dominant trends.  Additionally, interviews were linked with data from individual surveys for analysis.

    The limited number of interviews clearly restricts the generalizability of the qualitative research findings and care should be taken when interpreting these findings.  However, placed in the context of the 2008 survey, these interviews provide some important insight into what various students are thinking as they make college decisions as they finish high school.  In other words, they help provide some understanding of factors that may influence the survey results as well as cast some light onto the high school to college experience.


    What follows are a series of profiles that were constructed based on the eight interviews and then an assessment of dominant themes that were evident in the interviews.  The profiles themselves are, to varying degrees, compilations based upon multiple interviews.  This was done to protect the anonymity of interviewees and to better illustrate the circumstances of high school students and recent graduates.  Pseudonyms were also used to protect respondent anonymity.  In some cases identifying information, such as college currently attended, was also changed to ensure anonymity.  Quotes, as they appear in this report, are direct quotes from interviewees and reflect the actual language from the interviews. 

Tanya (Anticipated High Educational Achiever)

    Tanya is a white female student who graduated from Central High School in 2008.  Her mother has a Masters Degree and is working towards her PhD.  Her father attended some college classes but did not obtain a degree. Tanya's parents are married and their household income is $80,001 or more.  While in high school she participated in many extra-curricular activities and prepared extensively for college, including saving money.  Tanya is enrolled at Michigan State University (MSU) with plans to major in Psychology.  She has received a scholarship from Michigan State University based on her ACT score. The honor's college at MSU and MEAP money were influenced her decision to attend there.  Her college education goal is a Master's Degree.  She plans to move out of state and sees herself living in a big city. 

    For Tanya, attending college and going on to a graduate degree is a foregone conclusion.  Even when she was unclear about her future, college was always part of it.  She explains "I didn't really know what my major was going to be but I just kind of knew that I had to go somewhere."  Her parents were very excited about her college decision and appeared to have a significant influence on her decision to attend college, although her decision on which college to attend seemed largely up to her.  Interestingly, Tanya explained that she had no existing friends who were going to MSU.  This did not mean that friends did not influence her college decision.  Tanya notes that "Well, my best friend is a genius… and uh, her family has a long history of going to amazing schools, so it was a little bit of pressure because it was cool that I was going that I had a scholarship, but um, she's going to Duke."

    Tanya explains the benefits of college as being more than simply learning skills to obtain a better job.  In fact, getting away from home was one of the factors that influenced her college choice.  She recognizes that her ability to obtain scholarships gave her the freedom to make that choice.  It puts her in a position where she can decide where she wants to be and that instills in her a stronger desire to be there getting an education.  Tanya states that through college "you definitely grow as a person, I've never done my own laundry before, just like even outside the classes, just living incredibly taxing but um some of my classes are just amazing, like you want to be there."  While Tanya has an appreciation for learning as a broad-based endeavor, she remains concerned with how to weigh the cost of education and the necessity of obtaining employment after college graduation.  She states "I know some people who are just going into the most obscure majors and it's cool on paper but it will never work in the real world…so I think they should be a little more up front with that, and just the cost, the cost, the cost because that is just ridiculous."

Tammy (Anticipated High Educational Achiever)

    Tammy is also a white female.  She graduated from Western High School in 2008 and is currently enrolled at Delta College.  While she had done some preparation for college, including applying for financial aid, she is responsible for paying her own college tuition so very concerned about cost.  This was one of the primary reasons that she decided to attend Delta.  Tammy is planning on transferring from Delta to a four-year college and eventually going on to graduate school.  She hopes to move to North Carolina in the future and settle in that state.

    Tammy's college decision was made relatively last minute.  She explains that Delta was the only college that she applied to and that "I just figured I at any point in time I could apply but when they sent the free application to me I applied."  This lack of planning was, as she admitted a problem.  Tammy related how she spent all of the gift money she received from graduation before college started.    This lack of planning, however, is not indicative of a lack of recognition regarding the importance of college.  As with Tanya, attending college was a foregone conclusion in her household.  She states that "we've always talked about college, especially at my house...  there was no, you're not going to go, you're always going to go to college…and like with my brother, because he's 5 years younger than I am, and we already know that he's going to college."  Family is important and Tammy relates their pride to her ability to gain financial success when she says "well everyone was happy with what I'm doing cuz they want me to do something like they want me to do  something good and like get a good education and like make money, so yeah my mom was happy."

    Just as finances had a significant role in college decisions, Tammy's perception of the advantages and reasons to pursue a college education were also largely financial.  As she explains "Yes definitely especially with the economy and jobs and everything, you need a college degree to get anything" and later notes that "benefits are finding a good career."  Tammy notes that the relationship between starting a good career and a higher education is different than it was for previous generations.  Higher education is simply more important now, at least if one wants to avoid low quality employment. 

    It's not like back then, you didn't have to really, you could just go and work and everything was  fine, you can't do it anymore you need the education otherwise you're just not going to have, I  mean you can find jobs but you're not going to have a career.  You're working at like a normal,  like place like in the mall or fast food.

    Challenges exist for Tammy and, in particular, she is concerned about her ability to work hard enough to succeed in college, "I'm trying to train myself to work hard and it's different and new for me so I think that's my challenge."  The recognition of the importance of an education in combination with awareness of her own failings has caused Tammy stress as she has worked through her first year of college.
 Friends did have an influence on Tammy's decision.  She noted that many of her friends were going to Delta and past experiences at the college made her more comfortable in that environment.  Tammy reflected on the fact that she really only considered Delta and SVSU and that the cost of tuition finalized her decision.

Courtney (Anticipated Low Educational Achiever) 

     Courtney is a white, female student who was a first year student at Ferris State University at the time of the interview.  She attended Central High School and graduated in the class of 2008.  Despite the fact that neither of her parents have bachelor's degrees, Courtney had very well defined plans as to what she wanted to do upon graduation.  As she explained, she knew exactly what she wanted to major in and knew that she needed a bachelor's degree to enter the career of her choice.  This dictated her decision not to attend a community college as well as her choice regarding which university to attend.  Courtney explained that this decision was made during her junior year of high school.

    While Courtney anticipates getting a bachelor's degree, she notes that many people in the field of her choice actually only have associates degrees.  She states that she is not interested in going to school any longer than necessary to get a job, but feels a bachelor's degree will make her more employable so it is worth the extra time.  For her, a college education is very closely linked to financial success.  As she explains "most places you need a college education to get in and if you don't you're not going to make as much money."

    Courtney's parents and family were very supportive of her decision to attend college, although they had little influence on what college she attended or what she studied.  She stated that "they wanted me to get my degree, um and they just said whatever I wanted to do, it's my choice, they would just support me whatever I wanted to do…"  Similarly, Courtney's peers also appeared to be on a similar trajectory with most of them attending college.  At least one of her close friends is also attending Ferris, although she notes that many of her friends were attending Delta.

     While neither Courtney nor her parents had saved money prior to attending college, Courtney did not indicate this was a driving factor in any of her decisions.  She did apply for financial aid and noted that she had some concerns about repaying her student loans upon graduation.  She also indicated that the cost of college influenced how she attended college, particularly the decision about where to live.  Courtney recognized the additional cost associated with living away from home, but was sufficiently motivated to be away from her parents that she felt that it was worth the cost.  The cost of college has required Courtney to keep a job which, she recognizes has impacted the number of classes that she has taken.  This was a difficult balance her first semester as she explains "So I mean just balance yourself so you're not taking like an extreme amount of you can work and at least have some fun because if you're overloaded with credits it's tough."

Nick (Anticipated Low Educational Achiever)

    Nick is a white, male who is a senior at Central High School.  He is planning on attending Delta College after graduating.  Nick's mother does not have a bachelor's degree and his father does not have a high school degree.  Nick is receiving reduced lunches at school.

    Nick anticipates getting transferring to SVSU after Delta to obtain a bachelor's degree.  He indicates that he might even go on to get a master's degree "just in case there's a change in my later life. It would be a good back up to have."  Earlier, Nick considered attending University of Michigan or a more prestigious school, but as graduation from high school got closer Nick changed his mind.  The decision not to attend Michigan was made for a combination of reasons related to cost and academic preparation.  He explains "Well when I was younger like I'd always wanted to go to U of M and all those big time schools but then I realized there's some great quality schools in my backyard and with prices the way they are and all that you know must as well save."  The issue, however, was not simply one of cost and later Nick notes that he is not sure that his academic performance was sufficient to attend Michigan.  He states "I just sorta slacked in school, I wouldn't turn in papers and stuff so my grades were you know down from that, but so like I know GPA was a big thing and all that and that kinda discouraged me from looking at Michigan and that."  While Nick was not considering any schools other than Delta, he had not sent in an application to Delta as of November of his senior year.

    As with other interviewees, parents had more of an influence on the decision to go to college than the details about where to go.  Nick stated that "I think they're happy with [my decision], that I'm going to go get a college degree and stuff. It's something that my parents never obtained and it's something they defiantly want me to have."  Similarly, the plans of peers also appeared to provide pressure on Nick.  In particular, Nick appeared to feel some tension related to the fact that some of his peers were attending "big schools" and he previously had hoped to go to a similar university.  Nick reconciles this tension noting that Delta is an excellent school and one that other friends are attending also.  In general, Nick is not intimidated by Delta and explains that "We see no problems we just see it as another school year I guess it won't hit us that's it's college until we're there."

    The cost of school has influenced Nick's decision on where to attend school.  Notably, Nick noted a desire to reside in his parents' house.  As he explains "As long as I got home and I'm welcome there I'm not gonna leave until I have to."   He also states that financial difficulties will likely be the greatest impediment to him reaching his two year and six year goals.  In fact, he suggests that it will be the only barrier he will confront; however, the education will be well worth the cost.  As with previous interviewees, Nick sees the financial investment of college as being directly related to career success.  He explains

I guess financial would be my only thing cuz I know I can, it would be the only thing holding me back is just money but even if I have to take out a loan I think it would be worth it because a college degree is probably the best thing you can have right now. Cuz you can't get a job without it unless it's a minimum wage fast food job or something like that. 

Rhonda (Anticipated Low Educational Achiever and Bay Commitment Scholarship Recipient)

 Rhonda is a white female in her first year of college.  While Rhonda responded to the survey indicating relatively low anticipated educational achievement, she was also a recipient of the Bay Commitment Scholarship.  Consequently, she provides some insight into the role that the Bay Commitment Scholarship may have played on the decisions surrounding college.  At the time of the interview, Rhonda was a first year student at Delta College.  She anticipates transferring to another school to obtain a bachelor's degree after Delta.

    The choice to attend college was relatively easy for Rhonda as she was well aware that a college education was necessary to get a good job.  Similarly, the decision to attend Delta was not difficult.  While earlier in high school she considered other schools, as graduation neared her decision to attend Delta became clear.  In part this was due to the familiarity and class size.  She explained that Delta provided more "one-to-one" interaction with teachers that she needs.  Furthermore, Delta offered programs that directly related to the surrounding community.  Rhonda states that "we'll be able to go back out into the community and help other people while we're here at school… and like I'm really big into helping our community like I like seeing a smile on someone's face it really means a lot."  Finally, the proximity of Delta to Rhonda's home provided a feeling of familiarity and, importantly, also provided a financial advantage since Rhonda would not have to live on her own. 

    Rhonda had a great deal of guidance throughout high school in terms of college preparation, although she did not always listen to that advice.  She explains "All through high school they prepare you like oh in college you're gonna have this much homework and you're gonna have like 10 page papers and they prepared us pretty well. I was actually a lot of stuff in high school like oh you'll never use this again it's all brought up and you're like oh I should've paid attention."

    Despite her parents' education levels, she has found family to be a strongly motivating factor in terms of pursuing a higher education.  She notes that "They're really impressed actually being that I want to be the first family member graduated from college.  They're like really proud of me."  Despite the support that Rhonda received from her parents, she felt they sometimes failed in their ability to provide meaningful advice.  In relation to her dad, she noted that "he didn't even graduate from high school so he just always tells me to make sure I go and don't miss class…but he don't understand, like, the whole process."  While Rhonda did not indicate that her friends had much of an influence on her college decisions, she did deviate from many of the other interviewees who indicated that most of their friends were going on to college.  In contrast, Rhonda estimated that only half of her friends were attending college.

    Potentially, this contributed to the anxiety that she felt coming in to college.  She states that coming in to college makes one feel like "you're little you don't know your way around and there's people in classes that may be two years ahead of you…  like wow all the different classes and all what they have to offer… it's like wow."  Some of the challenges, however, are also internal and Rhonda indicates that she is aware of her own failings, such as procrastinating doing work.  She notes that this a potential barrier to her future success "the homework that I procrastinate doing…like big projects and papers because I procrastinate until the very last day…and, um, just like maybe losing some motivation along the way because that is a while from now, that's about it though, motivation, procrastination, laziness…"

    Despite these difficulties, both external and internal, Rhonda is well aware of the importance of college.  She states "I think everybody should attend college… like if you worked at McDonalds you could make a living off it but only for yourself and I want to be at the point where I know I'm not going to be short on like rent or something."  Rhonda is not shortsighted about the financial gain that can be achieved with a college education and appears to see it more as an issue of security and not simply that money itself is important.  She indicates "I want to be at a point where money is not really an issue for me as big as it is right now because that's the biggest burden that's the biggest weight on my shoulders is money and not having money for school. I know money can't buy happiness so I see like family and stuff."

    In the context of someone who appreciates the importance of college, but suffers some anxiety related to her ability to succeed in higher education the importance of the Bay Commitment Scholarship resonated with Rhonda.  As with other students whose parents had not attended college, the act of going on to higher education was itself seen as an accomplishment—actually receiving a scholarship was an even bigger accomplishment.  She explains "I found a scholarship and when I received the letter I was like you know I did this. This is that's a big accomplishment towards me and my family cuz I'm the only one I'm the first graduated or will be anyways the first graduated college student out of my family. So means a lot for me."  The contribution of the scholarship was not simply embedded in the award, however, and Rhonda noted the help of staff associated with the Bay Commitment Scholarship in ushering her through the start of college.  That made it easier for her to work immediately after graduating.  As she explains "so they helped to make sure everything got done and was settled and what not so um, I pretty much worked right after graduation for the summer that's pretty much all I really did."


    Due to the limited number of interviews caution should be used in generalizing results.  However, the profiles provide important insight into the college decisions of a cross section of Bay City Public School District students.  Since this research was conducted to provide background data for a scholarship program whose goal is to increase higher education enrollment in graduating seniors this also guided the thematic analysis of the interviews.  The project sought out the following themes: influence of household composition and parent/guardian demographics on educational aspirations, the influence of cost and finances on educational aspirations, and the influence of peers on educational aspirations, and the influence of prior planning on educational aspirations.

    Tanya and Tammy both represent students with relatively high goals in terms of educational achievement.  They both have parents with educational levels beyond high school and anticipate going on to graduate school after completing an undergraduate degree.  Despite these similarities, Tanya appears to have engaged in a great deal of planning related to college and is reaping the benefits of multiple scholarships.  She sees college as a means to a better job, but also an opportunity for personal growth.  Tammy, on the other hand, made the decision to attend college relatively recently.  Furthermore, college for her is very much related to career success and little more.  Tammy also indicated greater anxiety related her ability to complete college successfully relative to Tanya.

    Similar diversity was evident in the three profiles of anticipated low educational achievers.  Courtney, for example, had very clear educational goals despite the fact that her parents did not have college degrees.  Similarly, Nick indicated a desire to obtain a master's degree even though his parents' educational level and family income might suggest lower educational aspirations.  In fact, both Courtney and Nick indicated that their parents were very happy with their decisions to attend college, which supports the trends described in the Phase One report that suggest most parents of all educational levels realize the importance of education.

    Notably, all students indicated concern with the cost of college.  While all students saw college as something that was worth the cost and it did not appear to influence their decision to attend college, it did influence both the colleges they chose to attend as well as how they attended college.  Living at home appeared to be one of the most significant ways in which cost was negotiated while all students indicated that they were working one, or in some cases more than one, job to pay for school.

    However, the decision to attend school close to home was not simply a financial one.  Previous exposure to a college, in particular Delta College, appeared to make the transition to higher education a less difficult one.  In at least one case, the student would have preferred to live away from home and all students indicated that they planned on doing so after they completed their educations.  Despite this, interviewees felt that receiving a higher education was sufficiently important to warrant such sacrifices.

    Overwhelmingly the benefits associated with an education beyond college were associated with getting a better job.  In more than one instance, students made reference to jobs at fast food restaurants as examples of what non-college graduates would end up doing.  In one case, a student indicated that college also allowed the opportunity for personal growth that was not directly related to future employment.  Notably, she was one of the few students not living at home and had received several scholarships to attend school and even she noted the importance of deciding on a major that was realistically employable.

    In most cases, students indicated anxiety about their ability to succeed in college even if they were currently in school.  In many cases this anxiety related directly to their ability to continue to pay for school.  Some students indicated concern with balancing the working at jobs that they found economically necessary while at the same time dedicating the appropriate number of hours to school.  In most cases, students indicated an awareness that college classes were more demanding than high school classes and, at least in a couple cases, students noted that it was personal failings (e.g. the tendency to procrastinate) that served as an obstacle to succeeding in an academically challenging environment.

   The data collected from the interviews helps to put a face on some of the students that are graduating from Bay City Public schools.  Furthermore, it demonstrates the difficulty in distilling the complex set of decisions surrounding higher education into a small set of variables that can easily be measured and incorporated into a form or survey.  Despite this complexity, there were some trends that appeared consistent between the interview profiles and survey results.

    First of all, cost of education is a concern for both students anticipating all types of degrees.  This was evident in interviews with students where someone anticipating going on to graduate school was just as likely to note concern with cost as a first-generation college student starting at Delta College.  This was also evident in statistical analysis of survey data that failed to find an association between the influences of tuition cost on the college decision and anticipated educational achievement.  Notably, this variable simply measured the perceived influence of tuition on college decisions.

    While cost was a factor for all groups, that does not mean that groups negotiated cost in the same way.  During interviews, high educational achievers appeared more likely to seek scholarships, but still move out of their parents homes to attend college while low achievers were more likely to stay at home or to work more hours to help pay for college.  In the survey, this was manifest in the relationship between household income and free or reduced lunch status and educational achievement.  This suggests that while cost is a concern for everyone, it is more likely to actually have an influence on people from households with lower incomes.

    Of course, students' backgrounds are defined by more than their household incomes and parental education appeared to be a factor that also influenced students' college decisions.  In the survey, this was manifest in the statistically significant association between parental education and anticipated achievement.  Interestingly, in the interviews all students indicated that their parents were very supportive of their decision to attend college, regardless of their parents' education level.  In fact, it appeared in some cases that parents who did not attend college were even more proud of their children since college was seen as an achievement and not just taken for granted.  Unfortunately, in at least one interview, the interviewee noted that while her father was supportive, the actual advice that he could provide related to college was limited since he had not attended college and "did not understand."

    The decisions that students make related to college education are complicated.  There has been a clear thread throughout this project indicating that students and parents of varied backgrounds have a strong appreciation for the importance of higher education.  This is an important point as it suggests that even for parents who have not themselves achieved a higher education, the message that it is an important component of future success is well entrenched in this community.  At the same time, an appreciation for higher education does not speak to the specifics of how it is achieved or a student's eventual success in their career or life.  Particularly throughout the interviews, it was clear that students are constantly negotiating and balancing a variety of factors to maintain their lives at the same time they obtain an education.

   Often these decisions are not about whether or not to attend college, but rather how to go about attending college.  Students negotiated where to live, how many hours to work per week, and how many years they could afford to attend school before starting a career.  At times this involved personal sacrifices, such as living with ones parents longer than desired or even limiting personal growth opportunities due to a lack of time to participate in extra curricular activities.  At times, students were forced to put their educational success at risk as they took on more work hours to pay for school.

    While this study has, I hope, shed some light on the decisions that immediately surround the decision to get an education beyond high school it is important to keep in mind that attending college is much different than getting a degree.  Getting a degree is also much different than getting a job leading into a fulfilling career and life course. 


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*Support for this research was provided by Saginaw Valley State University.

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