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Students Lack Guidance To Meet Their 'High Hopes,' Study Shows

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Most students have high ambitions for postsecondary study and careers but sorely lack the academic guidance they need to reach those goals, an ongoing study of 5,000 Indiana public school students, their parents, and their school counselors has found.

Over all, the elementary and high school students surveyed and their parents tended to have little understanding of college-entrance requirements, job opportunities, andother factors they need to consider in making crucial educational decisions, according to preliminary findings from the Indiana Youth Opportunity Study.

The study is described as one of the first to gather extensive information at the state and local levels on students' planning for life after high school. It is also unusual, the authors said, in combining surveys of students, parents, and counselors.

The initial findings were presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association; further results are to be released in the fall.

While the economy and job market of a particular state provide the context for the study, the authors suggested that it will contribute to the national debate on ways of better assisting students who are not in college-preparatory programs.

The Indiana study found that the students who received the least academic and career guidance tended to be the ones who most badly needed it--those in vocational-education or general-studies tracks.

As a result, it found, such students frequently chose the wrong academic programs, did little to prepare for their continuing education or careers, or fell victim to poor guidance from ill-informed parents.

"There are incredibly high hopes by every group of students in Indiana,'' Faith G. Paul, a lead researcher for the study, said in an interview last week. The students and their parents showed "a deep and abiding faith in the American dream,'' she added.

But, she said, a lack of information led many students, parents, and counselors to make unrealistic decisions that placed formidable obstacles "between aspiration and goal attainment.''

"This was particularly true in regard to the decision about what academic program to take in high school, and what courses to take,'' said Ms. Paul, the president of the Public Policy Research Consortium of Northbrook, Ill.

Three Grades Surveyed

The Indiana Youth Opportunity Study, funded with about $1.6 million in grants from the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, is based on a statewide survey conducted in the fall of 1991 by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.

The questionnaires, devised with the help of focus groups of parents and students, were distributed to about 1,730 8th graders and equal numbers of students in the 10th and 12th grades.

The researchers also surveyed one parent for each student participant and all of the counselors serving the three grades in the students' local school systems. More than 90 percent of those in each group responded.

The preliminary findings presented at the A.E.R.A. convention in Atlanta were based on sections of the study dealing with the work of school counselors and with paths between school and work. The researchers also plan to release reports dealing with student aspirations, the effects of desegregation efforts, and other topics related to how well public education is preparing students for the job market and their future lives in general.

Among the most noteworthy findings to be released this fall, according to Ms. Paul, is a conclusion that students are not nearly as hampered by perceptions of others' prejudice against them as might have been assumed. Few of those surveyed, she said, reported that their ambitions had been dampened by concerns about their race, gender, or educational background.

False Hopes

But parents and students expressed "a deep fear'' that they would lack the money to pay for the higher education that they perceived as essential for success, Ms. Paul noted.

The girls in the survey were especially likely to express concern that they would lack the money to afford higher education, although the reasons for this are unclear, according to Amy M. Sullivan, a doctoral student at Harvard University and a research consultant to the study, who presented initial findings on the girls' responses at the A.E.R.A.

One of the survey's most striking findings, the researchers said, was the degree to which students and their parents failed to realize the consequences of decisions made while the students were in elementary or high school.

"There were large groups of students in the general program and the vocational program who thought they were being prepared for college and were not, or were minimally,'' Ms. Paul said.

More than a third of parents said their children's schools had never given them information about the differences between vocational, general, and college-preparatory programs.

About half of the seniors in general-studies programs and almost a third of the seniors in vocational programs said they planned to attend college. Fewer than a third of vocational-education students thought they had less than a 50-50 chance of going on college; half the vocational students said they expected to get high-paying jobs after leaving high school.

Part of the problem, Ms. Paul said, was that the parents of 8th graders often did not receive timely information about the various academic programs offered in high schools, and did not realize the importance of students' choices among them. Once students entered a particular program, "they were pretty much in it all the way to graduation,'' Ms. Paul said.

Unclear Goals

While the college-preparatory programs that respondents were enrolled in appeared focused on a clear goal, the goals of vocational-education and general-studies programs were found to be far more obscure.

Among the one-sixth of the high school students who reported that they were in vocational programs, just 43 percent believed their studies would have a major influence on their getting a job, and just 45 percent felt their studies would have a major influence on their admission to a vocational or technical college.

"Although the schools espouse a variety of paths to adult success, the only one they actually support seriously is preparation for college,'' asserted Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University and a lead researcher for the study.

Mr. Orfield said the students over all also appeared overly optimistic about their prospects of finding careers as professionals, and tended to have little knowledge of trends in the state's job market. Many of them, for instance, thought the manufacturing sector of their state's economy was shrinking, when, in fact, that sector was experiencing growth.

Counselors Focus Elsewhere

Survey findings presented by Ms. Paul at the A.E.R.A. meeting indicate that school counselors in Indiana do little to help students plan their futures. Instead, they focus their time on addressing students' personal problems, a task for which many them have little training, according to the study.

Judging from the survey data, Ms. Paul said, it appears "that the message counselors get from the principal is to take care of in-school problems first, and then give what attention you can to helping students plan for their future.''

When counselors did lend assistance in planning for work or careers, they were far more likely to be meeting with seniors in the college-prep program than with vocational-education or general-program students.

As a result of lack of information, Mr. Orfield said, "students and parents from lower-income and less educated families tend to believe that the admissions and cost barriers to education after high school are higher than they actually are.''

The study shows, he said, that the students not planning to attend college "need the most help, experience the most risks in the job market, have the worst information, but tend to receive the least assistance.''

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