This dissertation examines the strategies that students use for navigating their way through college and the steps they take in preparation for college graduation. I wrote this dissertation because I wanted to understand how students go from being freshmen not long out of high school to young adults prepared (or not prepared) to enter the workforce or attend graduate or professional school. Past research has found that as high school students, many young people are generally directionless when it comes to learning about different career paths (Schneider and Stevenson 2006). Moreover, in the U.S., there is very little structural support for helping students navigate the transition from student to worker. While universities may offer programs that can aid students in finding jobs or applying to graduate schools, it is largely up to students to seek these programs out. This dissertation therefore investigates the question, “How much do college students plan for their post-college lives?”
To accomplish my research goals, I focus on two areas in which students may demonstrate planfulness: choosing a college major and planning for post-graduation careers or schooling. I seek to answer three general questions. First, what reasons do students give for attending college? Second, how planful are students when selecting their college majors? Third, how planful are students in preparing for their future educational and occupational goals? To answer these questions, I collected my own data using a mixed methodology research design that included in-depth interviews with 31 students and a survey of nearly 500 college seniors at a large, northeastern university. This study adds to the literature on the transition to adulthood by studying the school-to-work transition. It also contributes to the sociology of education literature by shedding light on how college students make decisions about college majors.
The survey shows that many students simultaneously hold both utilitarian and liberal arts philosophies toward higher education. The majority of survey respondents reported that they were motivated to attend college because of both the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards that a college education offers. Meanwhile, the in-depth interviews suggest that parental expectations, which were also commonly cited by survey respondents as reasons for attending college, are very powerful influences in students' decisions to attend college.
Regarding college major choices, the survey results suggest that students find school experience more influential than the prospects of a potential career. In total, about two-thirds of respondents gave “present-oriented” rather than “future-oriented” reasons for choosing their majors. When looking at individual reasons for selecting a major, I found that passion for or interest in a subject was by far the reason cited most often as most important. The in-depth interview data provide further insight into the relationship between college majors and post-graduation plans. These interviews show that it is common for students to set post-graduation goals after they have chosen a college major. This was true regardless of whether students were present or future-oriented when making their initial college major decision. It was not unusual for students to select a major because of an interest in a particular occupation, but later decide that they no longer wanted to pursue that profession. Thus, I find that students can be future-oriented when selecting a major as freshmen or sophomores yet uncertain about their short-term post-graduation goals during their senior year.
I also look at other ways that students can demonstrate planfulness, including seeking advice from others and participating in “development activities”, which are activities that allow students to explore their interests. The survey shows that students vary in how often they seek advice from professors, advisors, and parents. On the other hand, most survey respondents participated in at least one development activity. The survey shows that social class was associated with these planfulness indicators. Both household income and parental education predicted the frequency with which students sought advice from their parents about choosing majors and making post-graduation plans. Family background was also associated with participating in activities that might help students explore their interests. Respondents from families with higher household incomes participated in more career-related activities than respondents from families with lower household incomes. Meanwhile, respondents with college-educated parents participated in more academic research activities than their classmates without college-educated parents.
In my last analysis, I return to my qualitative research and introduce a typology of student planfulness that can be used to describe the different approaches students use in preparing for life after college graduation. In my conclusion, I suggest future areas of research that could extend our knowledge of student planfulness. I also provide policy recommendations that address how universities could help students make well-informed decisions about college majors, career goals, and plans for graduate study.