Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Aspiration-Attainment Gap: Black Students and Education

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Aspiration-Attainment Gap: Black Students and Education

Article excerpt

Using a nationally representative sample from two waves of the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), this research examines the aspiration-attainment gap that exists for Black students (N=823). This gap is a measure of the difference between the educational level students said they aspired to reach reported in 1988 when attending 8th grade versus the education level they actually attained in 2000.

Hierarchical OLS regression modeling reveals that after controlling for a variety of family, individual, and economic characteristics; parental involvement in a child's school life (social capital) is a predictor of a student's educational attainment. However, findings also reveal that investment in social capital does not necessarily make up for low levels of human capital. The authors offer suggestions for future theorizing and research in contextualizing the aspiration-attainment gap among Black students.

Keywords: academic attainment, academic aspirations, Blacks, interaction effects


Upon studying how roles and norms affect behaviors, social scientists also examine expectations and how this can have the capacity to influence a person's life chances. In the study of education, aspirations - or what a student expects to attain and achieve - are often looked upon as an indicator of future success. The purpose of the research in this article is to explore the dynamics surrounding the educational attainment and ultimate life chances of Black students, operationalized as the difference between initial aspiration and final educational attainment. This research seeks to understand how such factors as human, social, and economic capital affect the academic careers of Black students. It also considers how these forces interact in predicting attainment. In so doing, the findings of this research suggest that increasing educational attainment is complex and requires solutions that tackle key social and economic factors in tandem.

In this article, the term "Black" is used to refer to people of the African Diaspora, and to such populations that reside within the United States. Since this article purposely includes those who may be first-generation immigrants or who, for whatever reason, do not identify as African American, the term "Black" is employed. Furthermore, it is capitalized to distinguish the racial category and related identity from the color. Given the scope of this research and the key areas under investigation, what does one currently know about the academic attainment of Black high school students?


Adolescence can be a difficult time period for all teenagers. Teenagers are asked to mete out obethence and submission when their energies and desires for autonomy are increasing (Silverstein, 1973). Literature on Black teenagers has shown the effects that social origins have on adolescent experience and the common problem of making a transition from the child to the adult stage (Sebald, 1968). Racial status and enduring lower socioeconomic conditions seem to mark their adolescent transition, characterizing them with complex patterns of future educational attainment. In particular, studies have shown that even if there is a convergence of educational aspirations along race, this does not translate into comparable educational attainment (Ogbu, 1986; Roscigno, 1998). Referring to the aspirations of 7th graders, Simmons and colleagues (1991) argued that "[tjhere does not appear to be a problem in aspirations, but African-Americans may need help in translating these aspirations into behavior in later adolescence" (p. 505). Also, high educational aspirations expressed by Black students are less likely to be sustained (Kao & Tienda, 1998). Consequently, socio-psychological experiences during me high school years may produce an adjustment in terms of those aspirations (Sewell & Hauser, 1972). The implication is that educational aspirations may or may not indicate a personal motivation to achieve but they can be used as justification to continue schooling (Kao & Tienda, 1998). …

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