Will Higher Education Make a Difference? African Americans' Economic Expectations and College Choice

By Freeman, Kassie | College and University, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Will Higher Education Make a Difference? African Americans' Economic Expectations and College Choice


Freeman, Kassie, College and University


In this Spencer Post-Doctoral funded, qualitative inquiry across a range of cities, schools, and family circumstances, African American high school students were given the opportunity to voice their perceptions of the influences on African Americans' college choice-the decision to participate or not to participate in higher education. The study concludes that African American high school students perceived that economic expectations, the connection between what they perceive to be the costs of attending higher education and what they perceive as their future earning potential, loom large in their considerations of higher education participation.

There is nothing more dreadful for academicians to consider or discuss than the notion that individuals actually think about jobs as one rationale for attending higher education. For academicians, the thought of considering a job as a reason to attend higher education violates the very idea of higher education: education for the sake of education. Once the subject of getting a job is broached, professors quickly begin to discuss how that very idea vocationalizes higher education. The irony of that logic is that there has never been a time in higher education history when the ultimate aim of completing higher education was not to better one's self economically and socially, which, as it is today, was attached to the prestige of the job one accepted after the completion of higher education.

Academicians continue to be in denial about students' economic expectations from higher education even when surveys such as the one completed by Boyer (1987) demonstrated that in the late 1980s an overwhelming number of college-bound high school students (90 percent) indicated that they were considering higher education as a means for getting a good job and that parents (88 percent) were equally concerned about the return on their investment, especially considering the high costs today of attending higher education institutions. Furthermore, economics of education and college choice theorists have solidly documented that economic expectations influence students' college choice process (Anderson and Hearn 1992; Hearn 1991).

Given the linkage between economic expectations and college choice, one rationale for the fluctuation of African Americans' participation in higher education could be their perceptions of economic expectations after higher education. That is, in those times that African Americans perceive they will receive a more favorable return on their investment in higher education, there will be an increase in the number of African Americans choosing higher education participation. For example, according to Perlman (1973), in the 1970s, when African Americans perceived that after completing higher education, they did not receive employment commensurate with their level of schooling, a question that many African Americans began to ask was: "Will college make a difference?"

The purpose of this research was to assess the effect of African Americans' perceptions of economic expectations on their college choice process. More specifically, this research examined two primary questions: In what ways do African American high school students' perceived economic expectations influence African Americans' choosing college participation? What can be learned from these students' perceptions of economic expectations that will be useful in explaining the fluctuation of African Americans' participation in higher education? In order to include a representative, diverse group of African American student voices, these questions were assessed from a range of African American high school students, across different high school types, and throughout different geographic regions. A qualitative method, utilizing group interviews, was used because rarely have college choice theorists utilized qualitative methods to examine influences on-students' college choice process.

In this regard, this research can add a much needed, different dimension to economics of education and college choice theories, particularly as it relates to better understanding the influences on African Americans' choosing higher education and, more specifically, the role that economic expectations play in African Americans' decision to participate in higher education. …

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