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Early ambitions make a big difference to career outcomes

When it comes to their futures, teens are influenced by what their friends are doing, and what their parents want them to do. Shutterstock

Young people who have early ambitions for study and their career are more likely to succeed than those who haven’t thought about life after high school.

New research shows having a career or strategic plan early in life is important to determining success in terms of completing Year 12, going on to further study and having a successful career.

Those who have no plans for what they might do after school are less likely to have a successful career, the report by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research showed.

High aspirations have a similar impact on Year 12 completion and university participation for all students. This includes low socio-economic groups and Indigenous students, although those in disadvantaged groups were less likely to have high aspirations.

“The factors affecting the educational and occupational aspirations of young Australians” examined young people from the 2009 cohort of the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth. The research examined what drove young people to complete Year 12, to begin university study in the first year after leaving high school, and occupational aspirations at age 15 about the job they expected to have at 25.

Parents’ aspirations for the child and their own educational levels were significantly associated with whether the students would complete Year 12 and go on to further study.

Students whose parents want them to attend university are four times more likely to complete Year 12. They are 12 times more likely to go on to higher education compared with those whose parents expect them to choose a non-university pathway.

The link between aspirations and parents’ education levels was also strong. More highly educated parents were more likely to have children with an interest in academic achievement.

Friends’ plans to attend university were also found to be associated with youths’ decisions to attend university and even their academic performance.

Having a positive attitude to school, including supportive relationships with teachers, an interest in learning and participation in extracurricular activities strongly correlated with intentions to continue to study.

Where there is a discrepancy, however, is between job aspirations of the 15 year olds and where they found themselves to be at age 25. Around half of the young people who aspired to highly skilled jobs had not achieved this goal by 25.

It was noted, however, that transitions from education to career were taking longer than in the past, so these youths still had the opportunity to reach their aspired career path in the future.

It was found that females are more likely to succeed in professional careers, with 52% achieving their aim of a high-status job, compared to only 39% of males.

Two-thirds of the group expressed interest in a professional career, but these jobs only represent one-third of jobs currently available. Unless there is a dramatic expansion in professional opportunities, not all students will succeed in their expected career.

Education and public policy expert Dr Nicholas Biddle says the fact that the majority of 15 year olds examined didn’t make it to where they thought they would at 25 has more to do with the uncertainty of being a teenager.

“But the really important point,” he says, “is if a 15 year old expects to be a vet but ends up as a health researcher, then that is a much better outcome than having no expectations at all and disengaging from any form of formal learning.”

Dr Biddle says the report shows there is a strong argument for targeting disadvantaged groups with aspiration-related interventions.

He said disadvantaged groups, such as low socio-economic or Indigenous students, may have lower aspirations because their probability of success is lower. If this is the case, then we need to look at the barriers to achievement themselves.

“Kids can sometimes overcome these barriers with high enough aspirations but there is a real danger in raising expectations if we don’t also do what we can to lower barriers,” he said.

Education scholar Dr Sue Roffey says it’s nothing new that students for whom further education is embedded in their family will see it as the next step.

However, this goes beyond just parental aspirations, she says. Those who haven’t grown up with this culture at home “need other things to happen at school” to get inspiration for further study.

“They need people who believe in them, who help them identify their strengths, and who enable them to feel connected to school,” Dr Roffey said.

“This then gives them a different idea of what might be possible.”

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