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How Today’s High School Students Really Feel About Life After Graduation

ACT Researcher Dr. Jeff Shiels
By: Jeff Schiel, lead research scientist

Students in 11th and 12th grade have a lot to think about. Many important decisions about life after graduation loom ahead, such as whether to attend a university or trade school, whether to take a job, or whether a gap year is right for them, along with weighing the costs and benefits of their options. With college enrollment rates declining, in part because of questions about the value of a degree, ACT wanted to closely examine how today’s students really feel about the costs and the value of some common postsecondary options, and recently published the findings in High School Students’ Education Goals and Opinions of Postsecondary Education.

ACT gathered opinions from approximately 1,500 11th and 12th grade students through a set of questions that explored their plans for after graduation. Question topics ranged from the extent to which students felt encouraged to attend college, the value of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and whether students believed they would get a good job after completing their postsecondary academic goals.

Students told us four things:

  • They believe they will get a good job after completing their education. A majority of students surveyed (84%) believed that they would secure a good job after achieving their education goals. College-bound students (those reporting that they expect to earn an associate’s degree or higher) had, on average, stronger beliefs about this, as did students who were from high-income families, compared to non-college bound students and those from moderate-income families, respectively.
  • They are confident that they are making the right choices for themselves — and that they will achieve their education goals. A majority of students not only felt at least moderately confident that the education goals they set for themselves were the best options, but that they would complete their goals, too.
  • They expect to finish their degree in four years. Most students believed it would take them four years to complete their degree. However, less than half of college students actually do complete their degree within a four-year period.
  • Getting a good job and career goals were top motivators for attending college. Students said that they received the most encouragement to attend college from their parents, followed by teachers. However, when it came to choosing a college major, students shared that personal interest, the likelihood of getting a good job, and personal career aspirations were more important than opinions from family.

It’s important to note the role of family income. We found that students with a high family income (above $100,000 per year) were more likely to believe that they would graduate within four years and get a good job following graduation, compared to students with low or moderate family incomes.

It’s heartening to know that even as college enrollment rates have declined, today’s students find value in postsecondary education, and are confident about achieving their education goals. Still, students’ opinions aren’t enough to push them through the difficulties of life after high school graduation and postsecondary education, should they choose to pursue it. It’s essential to provide resources that will help ensure students are best prepared for all the opportunities that come after high school graduation.

Learn more about students today and their opinions by reading the full report here.