College Dreams

University of Wisconsin - River Falls

March 8, 1996

Reality Can Block College Dreams

By Jaime Larson
UW-RF News Bureau

Students are not lacking dreams and aspirations, but they often don't have the means to achieve them, said Harvard University social policy Professor Gary Orfield, this year's visiting professor at UW-River Falls.

Orfield spoke to some 50 students and community members during a public presentation on March 6 on the topic "Race, Education and the Pursuit of Happiness: Can the Public Schools Make a Difference" as part of the Visiting Professor Program. During his three-day visit, Orfield lectured to numerous classes, participated in seminars and presented two public addresses.

Orfield joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government in 1991, previously teaching at the University of Chicago. He served on the staff of the Brookings Institution in Washington, and was Scholar-in-Residence at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He is widely recognized, including awards of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the Danforth Fellowship, and the Brookings Institutional Research Fellowship.

He has worked with numerous federal, state and local agencies and organizations including the Justice Department, Housing and Urban Development, the National Institute of Education, the Education Commission of the State, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the City of Chicago, and the Minnesota State Board of Education.

Orfield was co-researcher on the extensive Indiana Youth Opportunity Study's "High Hopes, Long Odds" research project that surveyed students, parents and counselors to explore why most students completed high school without preparation for college and work, and followed college students for two years.

During his public presentation, Orfield discussed his Indiana education system that surveyed 5,000 students, parents and school counselors across that state. Seniors in high school were tracked into their second years of college.

Contrary to popular belief, the study found that students fall behind not because they're unmotivated, but because their schools haven't been able to help them realize their dreams.

"What we found were increasingly high aspirations and very weak institutions for realizing those aspirations," Orfield said.

According to Orfield, the study showed that many students wanted to go on to college and become professionals, but few were actually on the right track in high school to achieve their goals. Many seniors planned to go to two- or four-year colleges, but were not taking the courses required for admission.

Although 49 percent of students surveyed planned to become professionals, only 28 percent of them were enrolled in college preparatory classes that would qualify them for admission.

In addition, many students did not have clear goals. The study showed that 71 percent of high school seniors believed they'd have well-paying jobs as adults, but only about half of that 71 percent had even vague career goals.

To get on the right track for success, Orfield said, students need good counseling: something that the Indiana study said was lacking in high schools. Though most counselors surveyed said they'd help students if asked, they didn't take the initial steps when students failed to come to them first. Eighty percent of seniors surveyed said they had not had long-range planning sessions with counselors to set career goals.

Another deterrent Orfield mentioned was the difficulty of applying for financial aid. Many families, especially lower income families, had difficulty filling out the forms to allow their children to receive aid, Orfield said. Furthermore, school counselors weren't helping much. According to the study, 66 percent of counselors said they spent less than 10 percent of their time advising students about financial aid options.

Many of the problems the counselors faced were typical. They are often burdened with many other tasks, such as lunchroom monitoring, and are significantly understaffed for the number of students they must counsel. Another typical problem the Indiana counselors faced was that they were trained in psychological counseling, rather than in career advising. As a result, they did not have access to appropriate information. Also, most of the students they advised were those who were already college-bound, rather than those students whose parents did not attend college.

Orfield also addressed the differences in goals between African American and majority students. Fundamentally, he said, they have the same aspirations, but the outcome is often different. Only 17 percent of minority high school seniors expected discrimination to be a barrier to their success; however, within two years, 33 percent said they had experienced such barriers.

Orfield compared the education system to a complex freeway system with no directional signs. Sometimes what looks like a turn-off actually turns out to be a cliff. What students need is more signs, less cliffs, or both, he said.

"If we can't provide the resources necessary to help people understand better than that, we've got to simplify it so you don't go off cliffs," Orfield said. "So that there is some connection between your dreams and what can actually happen to you."

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