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Deciding to Forgo College: Non-College Attendees' Reflections on Family, School, and Self

by Jennifer A. Lindholm - 2006

This article, based on work funded by the American Association of University Women, examines how personal and environmental factors shape non-college attendees' decisions to forgo college directly after high school. Group interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 48 racially diverse recent high school graduates (27 men and 21 women) who had not attended any 2-year or 4-year college since completing high school. All graduated from public high schools in Los Angeles, California, and were between 18 and 21 years of age at the time that were interviewed. Findings highlight study participants' current pursuits, their perspectives on college, the factors that influenced their post–high school life decisions (particularly home and school environments), and their reflections on whether they would do anything differently given the opportunity to turn back time. Considered within Persell's multidimensional framework, the findings lend support to the combined effects of societal, institutional, interactional, and intrapsychic variables in producing differential educational outcomes and post–high school life paths. Especially noteworthy is the transcendent effect across race, gender, and socioeconomic status of efficacy beliefs in shaping educational choices.

When you’re in high school, there’s a lot of freedom . . . a lot of freedom! Then, you graduate and you think, “Oh, what have I done. . .?” College . . . it’s not going to happen . . . at least I can’t see a way. There’s just too much going against it . . . the best chance for it’s gone. Who knows though? Maybe some day.

These sentiments were expressed by a 21-year-old non-college attendee as he reflected on his educational experiences and life decisions. Although college enrollments have soared in recent decades within the United States, issues of access and opportunity remain. Like this young man, many students today graduate from high school unprepared for college. In addition to ongoing concern about race- and class-based inequities, a current point of focus is the shift in educational attainment rates of men and women. On an annual basis, women now graduate from high school at higher rates than men, have higher rates of college enrollment, and receive higher absolute numbers of baccalaureate degrees. In 1970, men received 57% of baccalaureate degrees awarded at United States colleges and universities. By 1996, the proportion awarded to men was 45%. If the current pattern persists, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES; 2000) projects that men will represent only 42% of U.S. baccalaureate degree recipients in 2008.

The greater gains in female educational progress and attainment over the last 30 years have led some to ask, “Where are the boys?” The question has engendered a heated debate about the true nature of gender equity and opportunity in education, highlighting more fundamental issues such as who benefits from college, why some choose not to attend college, and what the implications are in deciding to forgo college (Brownstein, 2000; Durhams, 2000; King, 2000; Mortenson, 1999).

Numerous studies have focused on the characteristics and experiences of high school and college students and the personal and economic benefits of college attendance (Astin, 1993; Cohn & Hughes, 1994; Haveman & Wolfe, 1984; Horn & Chen, 1999; Hossler, Braxton, & Coopersmith, 1989; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Stage & Hossler, 1989). However, we still need to understand more fully how personal and environmental factors operate together to shape individuals’ post-high school decisions. We also need to find out whether there are distinctive and patterned variations in the decision-making process to forgo college directly after high school for people who differ by ascriptive characteristics such as gender, race, or socioeconomic status (SES).

Moreover, very little empirical research has been devoted specifically to understanding the experiences of those who forgo college. Given the relatively pervasive belief within American society that higher education is a vehicle for social and economic mobility, such knowledge would be especially important. In the present study, qualitative methods have been used to examine how young adults who have completed high school but have not subsequently attended college perceive the value of a college education. Particular attention is focused on how individual and environmental factors have influenced their postsecondary educational decisions.


Critical factors that influence the decision to attend college include a college-going expectation and encouragement from key persons in a student’s life; access to accurate information about what getting into college and being in college entail; and school- and home-based resources. Particularly relevant are the respective roles that parents, school personnel, and peers play in reinforcing students’ beliefs in their abilities not only to gain access to higher education but also to succeed in college (Attanasi, 1989; Choy, Horn, & Chen, 2000; Hossler, Schmidt, & Vesper, 1999; King, 1996; McDonough, 1998; Smith, Beaulieu, & Seraphine, 1995; Terenzini, 1994).

Information specific to college preparation and planning can be especially critical because of the logistical requirements for college admission. Not surprisingly, students who have knowledge of the college preparatory curriculum, who develop plans to attend college earlier in their high school programs, and who participate in early-outreach programs are more likely to attend college (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2001; Levine & Nidiffer, 1996; Mayer, 1999). Understandably, those who are raised in nurturing and resource-rich home environments gain additional advantages in preparing for college attendance (Choy et al., 2000). The school environment also plays a potentially critical role in that it can supplement a supportive, resource-rich home environment or help compensate for a home environment that lacks sufficient college-going information or support (McDonough, 1997). Indeed, environmental contexts often play a significant role in shaping students’ postsecondary aspirations and decision-making processes.


Within the sociologically based extant literature, conceptualizations of educational experiences and outcomes are most commonly considered in light of three variables: gender, race, and SES. The relative influences of these factors—not to mention their combined multiplicative effects on educational processes and outcomes—present a challenging web of empirical and theoretical issues for researchers and practitioners to disentangle.

High-SES students, for example, are known to make use of more information sources in the college-going decision process than either low-SES or first-generation students. Low-SES and minority students, on the other hand, are less likely to attend college because of lower academic achievement, more limited access to precollege information from guidance counselors, and their parents’ limited understanding of the application process and cost of college (Lee & Ekstrom, 1987; McDonough, Antonio, Walpole, & Perez, 1998).

Several markers of underachievement have also been associated with low-SES students, including low grades, being held back a grade, and higher transience (i.e., switching to two or more high schools; Choy et al., 2000). For economically disadvantaged students, lack of information about the cost of college is an especially problematic barrier given that tuition and financial aid have been shown to have a greater influence on lower SES students’ decision to attend college (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000).

Contrary to perceptions that minority parents are apathetic or resistant to their children’s higher education aspirations, Immerwahr and Foleno (2000) found that African American and Hispanic parents often place a higher priority on education than do White parents. Time and financial constraints, however, are more likely to prevent them from participating in their children’s education in traditional ways (Mehan, Hubbard, Villanueva, & Lintz, 1996). Another recurrent problem is that low-income and minority parents may express their ambitions for their children in ways that go unrecognized by the educational system. Minority parents, for example, frequently cite problems with school personnel and the school social climate—in addition to lack of knowledge about standardized exams, college admissions, financial aid, and college costs—as factors that hinder their children’s college-going plans (Perez, 1999). In sum, the process of selecting a college appears to be greatly affected by differential awareness about college and differential access to school personnel and other adults who are able to provide timely and accurate information.

Certain aspects of the process of selecting a college have also been found to differ for male and female students. For example, educational attainment is more strongly associated with family background for high school females than for males (Sewell & Shah, 1967, 1968). For high school males, attainment is tied more closely to academic ability (Alexanader & Eckland, 1974). For both genders, the three strongest predictors of parental expectation are father’s education level, mother’s education level, and family income (Stage & Hossler, 1989).

Although ethnic-racial background has a differential impact on the gender gap in college enrollments, a number of studies highlight the comparatively greater role of SES than race or gender in shaping the college-going process (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; McDonough, 1997). For example, King (2000) found that the greatest disparity in immediate enrollment after high school is between low- and high-income students, with those from low-income families being comparatively less likely to attend college directly after high school than their peers from more privileged economic backgrounds. Within socioeconomic stratifications, however, there are notable gender differences in the direct transition from high school to college. Moreover, since the early 1970s, the greatest growth in college enrollments among traditionally aged students has occurred among women from low-income families (Lindholm, Astin, Choi, & Gutierrez-Zamano, 2002).


Given the complexity of personal and environmental factors that can hinder college going, it is important to understand what happens to those who complete high school but do not go on to college directly thereafter. Barth, Haycock, Huang, and Richardson (2000) found that three fourths of high school diploma recipients pursue some form of postsecondary education within 2 years of their high school graduation. Graduates who enter the labor force immediately after high school engage in what Osterman and Iannozzi (1993) referred to as a "churning" process that is characterized by employment instability, migration, and idleness. Further, they reported that as many as half of non-college-going high school graduates do not find stable employment by their late 20s.

Johnson’s (1978) work predates that of Osterman and Iannozzi (1993), but he offered an alternative to churning with his theory of job shopping, wherein young people sift through various employment possibilities until they find something to their liking. Others view high school graduates’ inconsistent employment as “equalizing leisure,” suggesting that the sporadic work patterns of young non-college attendees mimic the leisure patterns of their college-going peers, who have frequent vacations and relative flexibility in their weekly schedules (Nolfi et al., 1986). Still others reported that the transition from high school to employment for non-college attendees is quite smooth and that underemployment is not as problematic as Osterman and Iannozzi portrayed (Klerman & Karoly, 1994; Manski & Wise, 1983).

In sum, there is extensive research not only on college going in general but also on differences in the process for particular subpopulations of students. There is also a great deal of descriptive information available to track the country’s patterns in postsecondary attendance and workforce participation. However, far less data are available on the life experiences that lead a young person not to attend college. Furthermore, it is not well known whether the decision-making process to forgo college varies for students who differ by ascriptive characteristics such as race, gender, or SES.

Analyzing the dynamics of educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment necessitates that we consider the interactive effects of individual and environmental factors. Persell (1977), for example, theorized that educational inequalities are the product of complex relationships between societal, institutional, interactive, and intrapsychic variables. By extension, Sadovnik, Cookson, and Semel (1994) explained that understanding education and inequality requires one to explore “not only what goes on within society and its institutions (such as the family and the school) but also the connections between them and their effects on individuals and groups” (p. 434). In an effort to aid our understanding of the agency and circumscription involved in college going, the present study employs a multidimensional framework for interpreting the interplay between individual and environmental factors in shaping the educational decision making of recent high school graduates.


The findings reported here are from a larger study funded by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that examined changes over time in the undergraduate enrollment patterns of men and women from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds (see Lindholm et al., 2002). A secondary goal of that study was to explore how recent high school graduates, both college and non-college attendees, perceive the value of college and how personal and environmental factors operated together to influence their life decisions immediately after high school. Here, the specific focus is on the experiences and perceptions of non-college attendees.


Group interviews were conducted in fall 2001 with a purposive sample of 48 recent high school graduates—27 men and 21 women—who had not attended any 2-year or 4-year college since completing high school. To identify the sample population, we worked with an independent research firm that used public record information to identify households in the local metropolitan area where potential participants might reside. The firm’s researchers conducted telephone interviews to screen these individuals. All who were contacted were informed that the purpose of the study was to understand the educational and career choices of recent high school graduates and were assured that their individual identities would not be revealed. Of those telephoned who met all criteria for inclusion in the sample (i.e., based on birth date, high school graduation date, non-college attendance, and nonaffiliation with employees of the research firm or university responsible for conducting the study), 72% agreed to participate in a group interview. Declinations were attributable primarily to lack of availability at scheduled interview times.

Among those interviewed, 57% graduated from high school in 2001, 30% in 2000, and 13% in 1999. All graduated from public high schools in Los Angeles, California, and were between 18 and 21 years of age at the time that they were interviewed. The majority of the respondents self-identified as belonging to a single race-ethnicity: White (21%), Hispanic (19%), African American (17%), or Asian American (5%). Roughly 35% identified as biracial or multiracial. Approximately 3% indicated "other" racial-ethnic backgrounds. At the time that interviews were conducted, the vast majority of participants had been living as fully self-supporting adults for between 4 months and 2 years.


Focus group interviews consisting of 6-8 same-gender participants were the primary method of data collection. Conversations lasted approximately 2 hours and focused on participants’ current pursuits, their perceptions of college, the personal and environmental forces that shaped their post-high school plans, and their reflections on their lives thus far. All interviews were conducted on a local university campus. Participants were largely encouraged to direct the conversation; however, an interview protocol helped to ensure that all had an opportunity to discuss the same general issues. The interview guide included questions such as, What post-high school options did you consider? When did you decide not to attend college? Do you see a college education as part of your future (why/why not)? Looking back, would you make the same decision not to attend college directly after high school (why/why not)? Study participants were also asked to discuss their family background and school experiences.

After the interview, each participant completed a short survey containing personal, family, and peer group questions. Average high school grades, perceptions of why people attend college, and the relative influence (very influential to not influential) of various individuals in deciding to forgo college were also queried. All participants received remuneration for their time and commuting expenses.

Following guidelines suggested by Miles and Huberman (1994), interview data were tape recorded, transcribed, and content analyzed for emerging themes. Safeguards to maximize potential threats to descriptive, interpretive, and theoretical validity were used to enhance the trustworthiness of findings (see Maxwell, 1996). Questionnaire data offered supplemental insights. In keeping with the focus of the larger study, the emphasis here is on gender differences; however, variable influences and effects based on race and SES are also noted when applicable.


The men and women we interviewed were just beginning their adult lives, yet many spoke of deep regrets and grave concerns about their futures. Although some expressed no regrets about the life choices made thus far, most spoke pointedly of the urgency that they felt to get “back on track” and one day earn a college degree. The following sections highlight participants’ current pursuits, their perspectives on college, the factors that influenced their post-high school life decisions, and their reflections on what, if anything, they would do differently given the opportunity to turn back time.


Of the 48 young adults we interviewed, none deferred college attendance in favor of pursuing childhood career aspirations in athletics or the performing arts. Similarly, none had plans to embark on missionary or military service, nor did any have long-standing aspirations to pursue vocations in the culinary, artistic, or technical arts that require specialized training more appropriately acquired outside a traditional college or university. Indeed, in talking with these individuals, we saw many compelling examples of lives in which one or more of the elements needed to facilitate academic success were out of place or, in some cases, missing altogether.

The vast majority of those interviewed revealed that, at some point in their lives, they did aspire to attend college. These men and women described openly, and sometimes very emotionally, the challenging personal circumstances that they felt had thwarted their aspirations. In retrospect, they also lamented what they realized to be their own “poor decisions,” the collective effects of which ultimately extinguished any hope that they would be able to attend college directly after high school. For example, a number of those we interviewed voluntarily shared with us their histories of drug and alcohol dependence. Among them, a clearly distinctive group (n = 6), all of whom were men, expressed cavalierly that they had “absolutely no regrets” about the life choices they made, including their ongoing involvement with gangs and criminal activity. Sadly, both for themselves and society, their uniform response to feeling let down repeatedly by both family and school personnel was to seek a kind of retribution by engaging in self-serving illegal behavior that they viewed as justified. To be sure, these participants made a lasting and chilling impression. However, their early life experiences—albeit often thematically similar to those of other participants—resulted in life choices that differ dramatically from the majority of those interviewed.

The post-high school working patterns of men and women were almost identical. Eleven men and 9 women were working full time, and 10 men and 8 women were working part time. The majority readily found work immediately upon completing high school. Notably, the 10 participants who had continued with their high school jobs indicated that already having a good job was a very strong influence in their decision not to attend college directly after high school. Not surprisingly, the attraction of earning money immediately was an especially powerful incentive to forgo college for participants from lower income backgrounds. For women, office work and retail sales were the most common vocational pursuits. Typically, men were also employed in retail sales or manual labor positions. Many participants described their current employment as work in which they had little or no interest. However, they remained in these jobs because they “pay the bills” and often were "conveniently" located. Approximately one fourth of these recent high school graduates—7 men and 4 women—were unemployed. For a few unemployed female participants, unplanned pregnancies had placed educational and career plans “on hold.”

Overall, those we interviewed commonly viewed their departure from formal education as an opportunity to explore the “real world,” an environment that many have now come to experience firsthand as being more harsh and unforgiving than they imagined it could be as high school students. This sentiment was especially prominent with regard to the difficulty that many have experienced in achieving financial stability and planning for their futures purposefully.


For the most part, participants were not enthusiastic about the prospect of attending college. Nevertheless, most agreed that college is important, and many have come to the realization that a college education may be a necessity for them. Indeed, 20 of the 27 men and 16 of the 21 women “definitely” plan to attend college at some point in the future, while 4 men and 4 women “probably will.” However, only 3 participants saw college attendance as a realistic possibility in their immediate future, and just 2 had any clearly formulated timeline for attendance. Only 2 men and 1 woman said they will “definitely not” attend college, while another 4 men and 2 women remained "undecided."

Many believed that one of the most compelling reasons that people attend college is to improve their career options. Overall, 79% of the women and 76% of the men believed that a prime motivator for attending college is “to get a better job.” However, men and women alike were skeptical that there actually exists a one-to-one correspondence between having a college degree and enhanced job opportunities or an improved standard of living. This sentiment was exemplified by the comments of one man:

If you want to make money, why go to college? You go to college for all these years and then come out with even the highest degree and make like $80,000 or $100,000. That’s nothing today. Half the millionaires in the world today don’t have a college degree. You go to college to learn? That’s fine. But if you go to college thinking you’re going to make money because of it, that’s just stupid.

By extension, some participants questioned the heavy emphasis that many adults place on college. For example, when one woman exclaimed, “Everyone makes a bigger deal of college than it really is,” others in her group expressed strong agreement. More often than not, however, these types of comments from both men and women were tinged with a tone of resentment about what “could have been” if those who had offered generic advice about college as a vehicle for social advancement also offered more consistent personal support in preparing them for adulthood.

Beyond considering potential earning differentials and career advantages, several men and women described what they perceived to be the more intangible benefits of a college education. “To learn more about things that interest them” was viewed as a compelling reason for attending college by 69% of the men and women interviewed. However, just 39% of men and 52% of women expressed agreement that people attend college “to become a more cultured person.” Male non-college attendees were comparatively less likely than their female counterparts to recognize and appreciate the potential benefits of personal development that accrue from college attendance.

The most prevalent shared sentiment among the men and women was that college affords recent high school graduates a chance to be “on their own” without being completely independent. However, participants also remarked frequently that the opportunity to experience such a gradual transition to adulthood is a "luxury" that not everyone can enjoy. Others, such as this man, viewed college primarily as a sort of social “training ground” with resulting benefits for personal growth and enhancement:

Starting from high school, I don’t think it’s about education. It’s more to make you socially ready for life. In college . . . all the essays that you do and the people that you meet and talk to . . . you learn from and you experience things of your own. If you don’t have that experience, then you’re missing out on a lot of things, you know? Not that I’ve been to college or anything, but you get a lot from going to college.

Overall, men and women alike perceived the cultural benefits of college as largely being a privilege that circumstances, monetary or otherwise, have prevented them from experiencing personally. However, whereas the majority of women espoused the potential developmental benefits of college, men were generally less willing to move beyond a position that college is one option, and certainly not the only option, for enhancing personal growth and development.


Given that the majority of non-college attendees did have college-going aspirations as they were growing up, what went "wrong" for these individuals in transitioning directly from high school to college? Most described several interrelated home and school environment factors that resulted in their decision to forgo college.

Home Environment

Throughout our interviews, we heard a variety of recollections about the role of family in shaping post-high school decisions, nearly all of which detailed relationships with parents who were minimally involved in their sons’ or daughters’ education. Indeed, some participants could not recall any conversations that they had with their parents about school activities, particularly once they reached high school. As one woman put it,

My mom didn’t care; she never even asked if I had homework. She didn’t take school very seriously, so neither did I. My dad was in “la la land.” He talked about college but he never asked me what I wanted to do or talked me through it. He just told me, “You have to go to college. That’s it.”

Many spoke of parents who allowed them to “slack off” and to “find out for [themselves]” the consequences of not making "good" decisions. For many men and women, the challenges of establishing purposeful life goals and developing personal responsibility in the absence of positive parental role-modeling and guidance were decidedly daunting. Men and women alike also commonly described parents who were overextended by working multiple jobs or consumed by their own personal needs and crises. Nearly uniformly, those we interviewed spoke of home environments that were loud, unstructured, and otherwise not conducive to developing self-discipline and good academic work habits.

Participants’ non-academically oriented home environments may be attributable, at least in part, to their parents’ own limited educational attainment. Only one quarter of non-college attendees’ parents—13 fathers and 12 mothers—had earned college degrees. Most notable, however, is that the largest percentage of non-college attendees’ parents—19 fathers and 17 mothers—had not even graduated from high school. Within the context of already difficult life circumstances, parents’ lack of experience with, and understanding of, the college-going process appears to have presented an added, and perhaps insurmountable, challenge.

Parents’ baccalaureate or advanced degree attainment, however, does not necessarily guarantee that their children’s educational achievement will be affected in a uniformly positive way. For example, some non-college attendees recalled the shock that their college-educated parents experienced when it became obvious—often during their senior year in high school—that their children lacked the academic preparation to earn admission into the same types of schools that they had attended. Indeed, for some participants, high expectations, coupled with a lack of ongoing communication and collaborative planning, created barriers to college attendance even within families who, by all external appearances, seemed to possess the social capital commonly recognized to facilitate college going.

Irrespective of social class, what some participants perceived to be their parents’ clear lack of concern about their attending college contributed to their own laissez-faire approach to academic planning. Once these men and women realized independently the stringent prerequisites for attending certain colleges, it was often “too late.” As one man explained,

When I was in high school, I didn’t think, “Oh yeah . . . I’ve got to work hard.” I mean, in 9th and 10th grade, I didn’t care what grades I got. Then . . . like in 11th grade . . . you have to get good grades and study for the SAT. Nobody ever said anything about how important it was when I was younger. No one said anything really until my senior year and by then it was a waste.

Throughout our conversations, we heard descriptions of parental relationships that were very similar. Parents were often disengaged, uninformed, or generally unable to connect with their children on various levels. Irrespective of parents’ educational attainment, participants recalled that they often received “mixed messages” from their parents about their fundamental capabilities. Indeed, a common source of frustration for men and women alike was dealing with what is perhaps best described as “consistently inconsistent” parental support and encouragement.

Although the fundamental outcome—non-college attendance—was the same for both genders, it was readily apparent that men and women tended to internalize their parental relationships differently. For example, women tended to talk openly about their parents and to couch their comments regarding family dynamics in terms of “They’re good people really, but . . .,” or “It’s just that they didn’t realize . . .” Men, however, generally were reluctant to disclose any information about their families voluntarily or to elaborate on the very abbreviated descriptions that they offered when asked directly about their perspectives on the role that parental and other family relationships have played in shaping their lives thus far. With the exception of those who expressed open hostility toward their parents, men were also comparatively less inclined than women to identify any clear association between their parents’ values, beliefs, and behaviors and their own life choices.

For some participants, other family members, especially older siblings, were also critically influential in their decision to forgo college. Indicative of the experiences that others shared, one woman described how the seemingly impossible standards that her two older siblings set propelled her to consciously choose as "dramatically" different a path as possible. Another described her disgust at how an older brother has squandered his best opportunity to receive a college education. Ultimately, his failure increased her own fears about being able to succeed in college, especially because she had never been as academically oriented or accomplished as he.

Beyond parents and siblings, non-college attendees rarely mentioned other family members as influencing their post-high school plans. However, another family factor, finances, played a pivotal role in many participants’ decision to forgo college directly after high school. For 79% of men and 43% of women, finances were a “very important” consideration in formulating post-high school plans. Only 11% of men and 10% of women indicated definitively that financial concerns were a nonfactor in their decision to forgo college.

Although men were comparatively more likely than women to express financial concerns, they were also more likely to indicate that familial responsibilities were influential in shaping their post-high school plans. Whereas just over half (52%) of the women noted family responsibilities as an "important" consideration in their decision not to attend college, over two thirds of men (68%) indicated the same. Most notable are the comparative percentages of men and women (43% and 29%, respectively) who indicated that family responsibilities were a “very important” factor in preventing them from continuing their education. Especially for those from low-income families who had no clear sense of what they wanted to study, attending college was perceived to be “taking time out of my life that I could use in other ways” and as “too much money just to have fun.” Consequently, for some participants, a pressing need to earn money and fulfill family responsibilities superseded the perceived value of attending college.

School Environment

Compounding the myriad challenges that they often faced at home, these recent high school graduates also had generally negative high school experiences. Many described themselves as “generally liking school” and “doing well academically” until “life started to get in the way,” typically during junior high school. Over time, succeeding in school became increasingly more difficult, and the incentive to do so was often overshadowed by a preoccupation with "drama" and "boredom." In part, participants disliked high school because of their negative perceptions of school personnel and, especially, what some came to understand as the "politics" of education. Some minority participants, for example, expressed their frustration over feeling that racial discrimination was to blame for their exclusion from college preparatory academic programs. Similarly, some White participants struggled openly with perceived inequities in the college admission process, particularly what they viewed as the practice of presuming "disadvantage" and giving preferential treatment to people based on their race alone.

Apart from their larger concerns about the general structure of opportunity within the educational system, participants were often specifically critical of their high school teachers. Over one third of men and women indicated that their teachers played an influential role in their decision to forgo college. Most troubling was the feeling that teachers were too often inauthentic in their relationships with students. Participants also highlighted their frustration with what they perceived to be tremendous variability in the way that teachers assigned grades. As one woman explained,

[Some teachers] were harder on some students than other[s]. They might be nice to you and give you good grades but the other person who’s doing exactly what you’re doing . . . they’ll give them a lower grade just because they don’t like them. Even though I got along with a lot of the teachers, I didn’t like half of them because I didn’t like their attitudes and how they treated other people.

Some who attended a high school where the vast majority of students go on to college described intense workloads and teachers who were reluctant to assign grades that accurately reflected the quality of students’ work because they knew that most students would not be able to “keep up” and would become discouraged. As a result, some participants lamented that although they received good grades throughout high school, they believed that their academic skills were not nearly as strong as one might assume upon reviewing the As and Bs on their transcripts. Ultimately, their internal perceptions of competence weighed more heavily than external records of achievement in determining whether they could succeed in college. Others who described themselves as "preoccupied" with personal problems during their high school years purposefully sought out teachers who were willing to “give credit for homework that wasn’t actually done” and “excuse unexcused absences.” In addition, "popular" were teachers who “didn’t take notice” of sleeping in class or attending under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

However, despite participants’ criticisms, what emerged most vividly from these dialogues is how important school personnel—especially teachers—can be in shaping students’ aspirations and behaviors. This is particularly true when other sources of personal support are lacking. Negative perceptions of teachers were particularly problematic for these individuals because the amount of effort they expended in classes was often directly proportional to the amount of respect that they had for the teacher. As one woman put it,

If the teachers were really rude and things, I mean . . . I did enough so I would pass with like a C, but I didn’t want to make them look good. It’s not because I was stupid or didn’t get it or whatever. It was that I didn’t want them to look good so I didn’t try to get good grades. If half the class is failing, what does that say about the teacher?

Particularly troubling in hearing these types of statements is the apparent willingness to sacrifice one’s own academic success in hopes of demonstrating that a problematic teacher is revealed as incompetent. Beyond investing an inordinate amount of energy in self-defeating behavior, this mindset also promotes a dynamic between student and teacher that can become highly adversarial and that the student is unlikely to "win." Indeed, we heard many stories from men and women alike who struggled to effectively balance their personal antipathy for some teachers with their fundamental responsibilities as students. Perhaps reflecting a strong, albeit largely unconscious, need to establish meaningful connections with positive adult role models, many non-college attendees also spoke of wanting to excel primarily to "please" teachers whose classes they enjoyed.

Irrespective of gender, the participants also had strong feelings about their high school guidance counselors, whom they commonly described as "clueless" or otherwise disengaged. Participants were especially frustrated that counselors were not more available to help them evaluate their post-high school options. One woman recalled her experience:

Trying to get help from the counselors and stuff . . .especially to try and figure out where it would be better for me to go . . . was like chewing on nails. They didn’t want to deal with anything. They’re like, “Well, the wall’s over there with all the information. Go read it.” And I was like, “That’s all fine and good but what do you think I should do?! You’re my guidance counselor. Guide me!”

Most onerous to participants was a generally shared perception that counselors too often “assume people’s capability.” Some, for example, recalled being openly discouraged from applying to various schools because “you don’t have enough money," "you’re not that smart,” or “you just wouldn’t fit in there.” When guidance counselors raised the option of attending community college, men and women alike tended to quickly dismiss the idea because they viewed 2-year colleges as “13th grade” or “just more high school” rather than as a plausible vehicle for transferring to a 4-year institution. Although both men and women felt generally "disregarded" by counselors, men were comparatively more likely than women (43% vs. 29%, respectively) to indicate that guidance counselors were directly influential in their decision to forgo college.

Some who were frustrated with the "quality" of academic personnel at their high schools and who lamented the lack of information available to them about various postsecondary options, including college, also expressed their recognition that school resources tend to be very limited and that teachers and counselors are often underpaid and overextended. Nevertheless, given the potentially powerful roles that teachers and counselors can have in shaping students’ academic aspirations and facilitating their achievements, those we interviewed felt strongly that high school advising needs to be improved. In particular, participants advocated teachers and counselors being hired as much on their capacity to understand students and communicate effectively with them as on their academic credentials.

Whereas interactions with teachers and counselors were generally negative, relationships with peers were often described as the one "redeeming" aspect of high school. Not surprisingly, the peer associations that these men and women described were ones that largely detracted from their academic achievement. Most compelling, however, were the expressions of those who talked about being "depressed" over seeing high school friends who were seemingly not all that different from themselves but are now doing well in college. Although "happy" for their friends’ successes, many also expressed openly their feelings of envy and “missing out” upon hearing about their friends’ positive experiences. Interestingly, these sentiments were expressed more often by the men, perhaps because men were more likely than women to have “five or more” close friends who went on to college (61% vs. 24%, respectively). Nevertheless, the positive example that some participants’ college-going friends may have provided was not, in and of itself, enough to compensate for the myriad personal and environmental factors that operated together to pull participants in nonacademic directions.

Overall, the environmental contexts these men and women experienced at home and school, coupled with their own admittedly maladaptive behaviors, increasingly diminished any hope they may have had early on about attending college directly after high school. Most distressingly, we heard overwhelming agreement with the sentiment that high school does “little, if anything” to prepare people for life after graduation. Today, these men and women are faced head-on with confronting realities of their childhoods over which they often had little control and with managing the consequences of their own past choices and behaviors. Indeed, in listening to the life experiences of these non-college attendees, we see that there is no question that life after high school has not been as carefree as many assumed it would be. For most, the abrupt transition to the responsibilities of adulthood—especially the challenge of earning a sufficient living—was unanticipated. Also common was a realization that, in retrospect, it would not have been “that difficult” in high school to have made "better" choices.


As a collective, these participants attributed their decisions to forgo college as stemming in part from circumstances that interfered with their development as serious students or that necessitated alterations in their post-high school plans. Additional roadblocks to college attendance arose during their high school years, an educational experience that was commonly described as "boring," "horrible," or “a joke.” As detailed earlier, many negative connotations about education were associated directly with aspects of the secondary school environment. Indeed, some of those we interviewed conceptualized not continuing their schooling after high school as an “escape from” an educational system that they alternately described as “nonchallenging," "overly challenging," "a weeding-out factor” or, in some cases, simply fundamentally "unfair." For many, the decision to forgo college offered a much-anticipated chance to leave an educational arena that they felt had thwarted rather than facilitated their personal and professional development.

However, participants also attributed many of their negative school and life experiences to their own personal characteristics and proclivities. In turning the analytic lens on themselves, participants were generally forthright in articulating the primacy of their own roles in contributing to their current life circumstances. In doing so, they tended to focus on their behaviors within the school environment, perhaps in part because the transition from high school to college is so heavily dependent on academic performance. However, they may also have focused more exclusively on the academic environment because they felt comparatively more efficacious in altering their behavior within this more succinctly defined environment than within the context of what we came to learn were often complex family dynamics and difficult home environments.

Some participants lamented the absence of a “real challenge” in an educational process that they felt was more about “jumping hoops” and “rote memorization” than it was about true learning. These individuals—some of whom, by their own admission, struggled with attention disorders and learning disabilities—now understand why it was difficult for them to see clearly the linkages between completing seemingly meaningless daily assignments and achieving long-term academic success. Their often self-described inability to delay personal gratification, coupled with their largely ineffective habits of interacting with authority figures, also thwarted their academic achievement.

Other participants’ poor self-concepts, as reflected in their self-identification as "losers" or "rejects," seem to have developed not only from their early interactions with family but also from their early school experiences, especially their readily apparent deviance from what they described as prevailing school social norms. Men and women who spent years feeling “out of place” and "misunderstood" within the school environment expressed rather mixed emotions about how that experience may have influenced their post-high school plans. Some welcomed the opportunity to leave such an environment permanently and to seek other venues where they might be accepted more readily. Others were insistent that deviating from the "norm" did not matter to them at all. However, during the interviews, these words were often defied by their actions that, dishearteningly to us, were often characterized by self-protective body language, averted eye contact, and a general sense of angst. Sadly, for many, the spark of confidence that they will undoubtedly need to take the initiative in altering their current paths will most likely be generated from experienced success—a condition that many, in recent years, seem to have known infrequently.

Nonetheless, the participants we interviewed generally acknowledged that "hard" and "unfair" as life can be sometimes, many people overcome negative home and school environments to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds. Recalling people they have known who had seemingly "perfect" families but who ultimately did not go on to college after high school, and those they have known who had literally no support, financially or otherwise, from their families yet still found a way to go to college, the general consensus, as one man remarked, was that “it all boils down to you.” Indeed, one of the things we found most difficult to hear, yet also most uplifting, was the amount of personal responsibility that many of these men and women felt ready to accept for their past "mistakes." Also compelling was the determination many expressed “to get back on track” despite the "difficult," "uncertain," and sometimes "intimidating" road they saw ahead. Part of this process has necessarily involved reflecting on what they would do differently if given the opportunity to “go back.”

Would they do things differently? Among these young adults, women were far more likely than men (17 vs. 11, respectively) to indicate that if they had it to do over again, they would attend college directly after high school. Just 2 women, compared with 11 men, indicated that they would again make the same decision to forgo college. One woman and 4 men were "unsure" whether they would again choose not to attend college immediately after high school.

Many who expressed that they would welcome the chance to go back and make different choices explained that much of their lack of planning for life after high school originated from being "fearful" of attending college. Looking back, they described their fear as stemming primarily from the realization that “jumping into the whole college scene” meant facing a new set of challenges and uncertainties for which they felt extremely unprepared and that they found simply daunting as a result. Others attributed their anxiety more specifically to the internal conflict that they experienced with respect to whether they were truly interested in going to college or mindlessly going through the motions that others expected of them. Uncertainties about their personal competencies and professional ambitions, along with what some expressed as a tendency to “ignore things” that "scare" them, ultimately led many participants, especially the women, to perpetually “put off” planning for the future. In retrospect, many now realize that this habit ultimately resulted in increasing their anxiety and decreasing their sense of personal control.

Beyond recognizing a need to behave proactively rather than reactively in charting one’s life course, some participants now also recognize more clearly that making short-term sacrifices is the most effective way to achieve long-term gains. For example, in describing how he could have reacted differently in high school, one male participant touched upon many of the "regrets" his male and female peers also expressed:

I’d do so many things different. I mean college . . . I wish I could come here. Although there’s a lot of negatives to it . . . but just to learn . . . to be a bigger person . . . definitely I want to go. I would die to go to school. It would be awesome. You know, when you’re in high school, you don’t want to sit there. You don’t have the patience for it. But now it’s like . . . man, you could go back to high school and all you’d have to do is sit there and say, “Blah, blah, blah” to whatever they ask and just know that, “Hey, I can hang.” But I had to be cool and take off. And I’ll tell you, I could sit through some college classes right now!

As it is, men and women who, in some cases, now "desperately" want to go to college are struggling under the weight of full-fledged adult responsibilities while simultaneously trying to develop a viable plan for finding the time and the money to attend. For these individuals, recollections of what could have been offer a painful reminder that second chances are sometimes very difficult to come by.


In her study of high school students’ process of selecting a college, McDonough (1997) described high school as an "intermediate" institution within the educational system. She noted that whereas the transition from elementary to secondary school is compulsory, the continuation to college is voluntary, driven both by individual achievement and motivation. Understanding the interactions between individuals and societal institutions such as families and schools is central to explaining the transition from secondary school to college that McDonough and others have studied previously (Immerwahr & Foleno, 2000; Mayer, 1999). Whereas those studies examined the perspectives and experiences of currently enrolled high school or college students who are confronting inequities and other sociocultural barriers in transitioning to college, this study explores the views of young adults who succeeded in completing their compulsory education but have not continued their schooling thereafter.

Considered within Persell’s (1977) multidimensional framework, the findings from this study lend support for the combined effects of societal, institutional, interactional, and intrapsychic variables in producing differential educational outcomes and post-high school life paths. Whether they personally buy into prevailing societal conceptions about the central role of education in facilitating economic, social, and political equity, the men and women we interviewed were clearly aware that their decisions to forgo college were not societally preferable ones. Some even went so far as to describe their post-high school educational choices as "deviant," "wrong," or "bad." Whereas a few of the men seemed to revel in their self-described rebellion toward normative expectations and societal systems that they feel perpetuate inequity, most men and all women felt a strong sense of generalized societal pressure to complete at least some college coursework. Indeed, many felt a strong obligation to contribute to society in some meaningful way and recognized that attending college is often viewed today as the standard path toward that end. For the most part, participants also expressed regret about the choices that they made in high school and conveyed their intention to enroll in college courses within the next few years, time and money permitting. Although many acknowledged openly their frustration over what they viewed as the inherent societal inequities rooted in class, race, and gender, the overwhelming majority also agreed that, in the final analysis, if one wants something badly enough, one can achieve it.

Turning to institutionally based effects on the post-high school life choices of these participants, we see the potentially negative effects of being raised in families in which college going is not the norm. Indeed, as has been well documented previously, children who would be the first in their families to pursue more than a compulsory education face a variety of challenges that their peers from more educationally advantaged backgrounds do not (London, 1989, 1992; Somers, Woodhouse, & Comer, 2000; Stanton-Salazar, 1997). What is more universally compelling, however, is that we see the potentially devastating negative effects that transcend race, gender, or class in families who are ineffective in conveying to children their inherent worth as individuals and the importance of sustained hard work and self-discipline in promoting personal achievement. Many participants were raised in families in which parents and other adult caregivers were preoccupied with their own personal issues and challenges, and delayed rewards took a proverbial back seat to the pleasure of immediate gratification. As revealed in the comments of White participants who came from "privileged" backgrounds, the intrapsychic inequities that can result from being raised in a dysfunctional home environment can dramatically offset the sociocultural advantages that race- and class-based capital otherwise affords.

As elaborated previously, participants recounted interactions with high school teachers and guidance counselors that were predominately negative. Although most participants recalled one or two outstanding teachers, the overwhelming sentiment was that teachers and counselors today are generally ineffective in helping prepare students for life after high school. Interestingly, peers of these participants who were currently enrolled as college freshmen and who were interviewed as part of the larger study funded by AAUW showed generally similar perceptions of their high school teachers and counselors (Lindholm et al., 2002). Like their non-college-going counterparts, they recalled school personnel who, for the most part, had little time to get to know them and who generally expressed marginal interest in their post-high school plans. Indeed, in a state in which there is one counselor for every 543 students on average (California Association of School Counselors, 2000), it is not surprising that regardless of their knowledge, commitment, or concern, guidance counselors—especially those at large public high schools—would not easily play a key role in positively affecting students’ plans to attend college.

For the most part, the young adults we interviewed who opted to forgo college were raised in families in which college-going was not the norm or in which parents and other adult role models were largely disengaged from their children’s daily activities. As such, the school environment may have assumed comparatively greater importance in the post-high school decision-making processes of these individuals than is the case for those who come from more college savvy or nurturing home environments. This rationale is corroborated by the stories of college-going young adults who, like many of their non-college-going peers, were raised in challenging home environments (see Lindholm et al., 2002).

Indeed, the combined effects of home and school environments on decisions to forgo college immediately after high school are apparent. However, also compelling in listening to the life stories of non-college attendees is the role of what Persell (1977) labeled intrapsychic factors in shaping the perceptions and post-high school decisions of young adults. Especially noteworthy is the transcendent effect across gender, race, and socioeconomic status of efficacy beliefs in shaping educational choices. According to Bandura (1995), perceived self-efficacy relates to “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (p. 2). At its core, efficacy pertains to personal judgments of one’s capabilities to perform given activities. Because personal agency perceptions influence motivation and cognitive, affective, and choice processes, Bandura believes that psychological barriers frequently provide a more formidable obstacle for individuals to overcome than do the actual circumstances with which they are faced. His social cognitive theory posits that self-efficacy judgments are influenced both by actual and vicarious experiences, and by social persuasion and physiological/emotional arousal states.

In the case of these non-college attendees, we see clearly the manifestations of experiences and arousal states in shaping post-high school decision making. Those we interviewed experienced home and school environments that negatively impacted the development of self-confidence in their academic abilities and mastery of the basic self-regulatory skills (e.g., goal setting and good study habits) that facilitate educational success. For some, academic self-efficacy was also undermined by sibling example. In some cases, older brothers and sisters were lauded as superachievers whose accomplishments seemed impossible to parallel. In other cases, older siblings’ academic struggles led younger brothers or sisters to presume that their own academic ventures would end in similar frustration and shame. Indeed, although many did not consciously recognize these effects at the time they were powerfully shaping their own academic choices, vicarious and personal experiences weighed heavily on the development of the participants’ self-efficacy beliefs within educational contexts.

In addition, the participants were often forthright in acknowledging their inclination to dwell on personal shortcomings and to judge harshly their likelihood of success in embarking on new endeavors. For example, even those who earned good grades in high school felt certain that those marks did not accurately reflect their true academic ability. Similarly, they were not inclined to trust others’ positive estimations of their skills or to embrace others’ encouragement. Moreover, whereas individuals who are highly efficacious within a given context tend to channel stress reactions to energize their preparation and, ultimately, improve their performance under difficult circumstances, those we interviewed were essentially debilitated by their own reactions to environments that they perceived as overly challenging or otherwise threatening (Bandura, 1995). Indeed, as Zimmerman (1995) explained, the development of academic competencies is “public, competitive, and self-defining” (p. 202). Those who excel early on and whose accomplishments are recognized, encouraged, appreciated, and reinforced by influential adults build confidence in their abilities to succeed academically, even in the face of what some observers might deem to be seemingly insurmountable odds. Others who do not develop adequate levels of confidence in their social and academic capabilities may struggle excessively in navigating the pathways to postsecondary education, irrespective of their actual abilities, overall potential, or access to resources known to facilitate college going.

For those who participated in this study, the combined effects of low academic self-efficacy, difficult home environments, and attendance at high schools within which they felt disconnected from positive and supportive adult role models resulted in their making choices that ultimately prevented a seamless transition to postsecondary education. Now that the direct path from high school to college has closed behind them, those we interviewed left us with one compelling, collective recognition: All paths leading to college that remain open to them are fraught with the perils of adult responsibility and the sometimes seemingly overwhelming challenge of developing new perceptions and habits.


In listening to these non-college attendees, we hear the voices of those whose young lives have been tumultuous and whose potential, academic and otherwise, remains largely untapped. They are voices that, irrespective of race, class, or gender, speak powerfully and uniformly to the importance of community, kindness, and caring in helping each other succeed. In these individuals, we see the shortcomings of our educational system and our society reflected. And from them, we hear how to help others make life decisions that are more thoughtful and well informed than were their own.

One clear theme of the study is a lack of effective parental support for their children’s educational pursuits. The resulting question for educators thus becomes this: Is it the responsibility of teachers, counselors, and other school personnel to compensate for the parental support and guidance that students may not receive at home? Discussion of the changing social fabric of American society and the appropriate levels of accountability among various societal institutions for ensuring that our children have the greatest possible opportunity for success in life is beyond the scope of this analysis. One could argue, however, that the fundamental responsibility for school personnel should not differ from the familiar dictum for physicians originated by Hippocrates: First, do no harm. Indeed, the damage that teachers, counselors, and school administrators might do is not usually life threatening. However, as we heard from these non-college attendees, thoughtless words and actions can certainly contribute to negative, life-altering decisions. By the same token, as we heard from the college freshmen interviewed as part of the larger study, caring words and well-timed interventions from school personnel can also play central roles in the success of students whose academic futures are perilous.

To be sure, one of the most compelling aspects of these interviews to those involved in conducting them was the appreciation that the participants expressed for the opportunity to be listened to without judgment. Equally powerful for those we interviewed was listening to each other and considering how others’ life challenges and experiences might help them better understand their own. In considering the implications of the findings presented here, one clear challenge for practitioners lies in creating educational climates in which open dialogue about life decisions is encouraged and supported.

In closing, it should be noted that the findings presented here are limited by the nature of the study and the sample. The young adults who participated in these interviews constitute a purposive sample of recent public high school graduates in one metropolitan area. Similarly aged high school graduates who were raised in other metropolitan or rural areas may commonly experience qualitatively different family dynamics and high school experiences. As a result, they may also develop different perceptions about the salience of college in shaping their personal and professional lives and, by extension, have different motivations for attending and forgoing college. Moreover, although the heterogeneous composition of interview groups resulted in dynamic exchange among participants, it is possible that the racial and socioeconomic diversity and unique personality dynamics that characterized interview groups may have tempered the extent to which some participants revealed fully their perceptions and experiences.

Certainly, the propositions generated through this analysis can be tested on other young adult, non-college-going populations. Future research that employs in-depth individual interviews may yield a more complete understanding of how life histories influence the process of deciding whether to attend college. Other valuable efforts might exclusively examine the ways in which more narrowly defined populations of men and women, such as those disaggregated by race, socioeconomic status, and geographic location, may differentially perceive their post-high school options. Such analyses might reinforce the findings detailed here. They may also provide additional insight as to how going to college can become a more viable option for high school students who are at risk for exiting the educational pipeline between high school and college without having sufficiently considered the potential outcomes of that decision. Ultimately, the knowledge generated through these lines of research can assist academic personnel in creating educational environments that more completely support the personal growth and academic development of all students.

This article is part of a larger study funded by the American Association of University Women that was carried out by Jennifer A. Lindholm, Helen S. Astin, and a team of graduate students who assisted with various phases of the research: Jeung Yun Choi, Estella Gutierrez-Zamano, Troy Behrens, Frank DiCrisi, Katalin Szelenyi, Amy Fann, Anne-Marie Nunez, and Linda DeAngelo. Kathryn Mahoney and Carmen Kistner of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute also played instrumental roles in facilitating this research. The author thanks Clifford Hill at Teachers College Record, an anonymous reviewer, and Helen S. Astin for their helpful comments in preparing this version.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 4, 2006, p. 577-603
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12362, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:40:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Lindholm
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER A. LINDHOLM is visiting assistant professor of Higher Education and Organizational Change at the University of California, Los Angeles, and associate director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Her current research interests include the structural and cultural dimensions of academic work; the career development, pedagogical practices, and work experiences of college and university faculty; and college students’ personal and affective development. Her most recent work has been published in The Journal of Higher Education and The Review of Higher Education.
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