WASHINGTON – Young people give mediocre marks to America's high schools but put great faith in its colleges.
A new Associated Press-Viacom poll suggests most high schools are failing to give students a solid footing for the working world or strong guidance toward college, at a time when many students fear graduation means tumbling into an economic black hole.
Most of the 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed gave high schools low grades for things that would ease the way to college: A majority say their school wasn't good at helping them choose a field of study, aiding them in finding the right college or vocational school or assisting them in coming up with ways to pay for more schooling.
If schools did these things better, it could make a significant difference, because young people already are enthusiastic about higher education. Two-thirds say students should aim for college, even if they aren't sure yet what career they want to pursue. Almost as many say they want to get at least a four-year degree themselves.
The majority of high school students probably won't end up with a college degree, however. Among those a few years ahead of them — today's 25- to 34-year-olds — only about a third hold a bachelor's or higher degree, according to the Census Bureau. Less than 10 percent get an associate's degree.
So getting students ready for work remains central to high schools' mission. And most young people say their school didn't do a good job of preparing them for work or helping them choose a future career. They also give high schools low marks on exposing them to the latest technology in their field and helping them get work experience, according to the poll conducted in partnership with Stanford University.
Learning real-life job skills is important to students such as Mary Margaret Rice, 18, who likes her regional vocational high school in Wakefield, Mass. "I'm getting training to weld," she said.
Rice is interested in joining the military, but not in more schooling after graduation. "Money is a reason," she said, "but the main reason is I can't really focus on classwork and homework."
Overall, only 4 in 10 young people voice strong satisfaction with their high school education. About as many are "somewhat satisfied." Almost a fifth are unsatisfied — twice as many as expressed unhappiness with college.
Lovina Dill says she wishes the two high schools she attended in California had taught her how to deal with the ups and downs of the real world. She could have used a class in "what happens if you can't get a job, and the unemployment rate rises and nobody can find a job." Dill said she was briefly homeless when she was laid off and unable to find a job using her certification in massage therapy.
Dill, now 21, self-employed and living with her father in Arcadia, La., thinks high schools should offer juniors and seniors workshops on how to get a job, how to build a career and the many educational options besides a four-year degree.
The one category where young people rated high schools best was preparing them for further education: 56 percent say their school did a good or excellent job at that. Those who went on to college or trade school gave their high schools better marks than those who didn't.
The bulk of college students — 6 in 10 — declare themselves either "very" or "extremely" pleased with their higher education.
Most say a career-focused college education is a high priority, and students feel their schools are providing it. A strong majority of students and recent grads give their college high marks for preparing them for the workforce, helping them choose a field of study, exposing them to the latest technology and helping them get internships.
Six in 10 even say their college was "excellent" or "good" at helping them find money to pay for their education.
Young adults' opinions are mixed on whether the nation's education system understands their goals and values. Almost half of college attendees feel that the schools "get" them. That's significantly more than among those whose education stopped at high school; just 3 in 10 say the school system could identify with them.
Young people credit their own ambition and abilities most for their progress in life, followed by parents, family and friends. But beyond that tight-knit circle, teachers are the heroes, with 4 in 10 saying high school teachers helped a lot. College teachers earn similar praise.
High school and college counselors are a step behind. Most students give them some credit, but less than one-fourth say their counselors were a lot of help, and about 3 in 10 think they didn't help at all.
Nonwhite students were more likely than whites to say their high school counselors helped them, and also gave their high schools better ratings for helping find money for college.
Young adults overall see brighter days ahead for education. About half think kids entering elementary school today will get a better education than they did, more than double the number who predict schools will get worse.
The AP-Viacom telephone survey of 1,104 adults ages 18-24 was conducted Feb. 18-March 6 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Stanford University's participation in this project was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
AP writer Stacy A. Anderson, AP Polling Director Trevor Tompson, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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