When Plans Fail
Are ambition and planning the keys to success for young people today? Popular media and many researchers would say yes. Such accounts depict navigating the transition to adulthood as a series of relatively straightforward steps: enroll in college, delay family responsibilities (especially childbearing), and get a steady job. And to execute these steps, young people simply need a good plan.
My research suggests otherwise. As I wrote in my book, Best Laid Plans: Women Coming of Age in Uncertain Times, plans alone cannot ensure young people achieve their goals. I followed 61 middle-class, working-class, and poor young women from high school into young adulthood, examining their plans for the future, how they pursued those plans, and how their pursuits paid off. What I found is that these young women not only aspired to go to college and obtain a steady, well-paid job, but they planned for these futures, too. They talked to guidance counselors, parents, and other adults in their orbit. They knew the jobs they wanted and the years of education required to obtain these jobs. They applied to reasonable colleges.Despite all these efforts, I found the young women’s pursuit of higher education, good jobs, and stable family lives were stratified by social class. For middle-class young women with resources and a private (family) safety net, plans for the future often paid off. For many working-class and poor young women, plans not only held them back but often contributed to them falling further and further behind their peers (and into debt they struggled to repay). The plans these young women made kept them locked into an educational system that was not set up to reward their efforts.
Why was this the case? I argue that the postsecondary educational landscape is labyrinthian, poorly regulated, and expensive—and that this reality, combined with very real advantages of a college degree, creates a system in which most young people go to college but many get lost along the way.
Among the young women I interviewed, there was a share of mostly middle-class women who traversed this landscape with relative ease—as I put it in the book, they were on track. Middle-class young women relied on adults they knew to point them to the right colleges, internships, and shadowing opportunities. They entered exclusive internal college programs such as honors colleges or pre-professional programs that offered resources and support. A small number of working-class young women also managed to navigate this terrain, albeit into less exclusive college programs.
Other young women—working-class, downwardly mobile middle-class, and upwardly mobile poor young women—got stuck holding on. These young women enrolled in college, worked full-time or intensive part-time hours, and helped their families with care work and household upkeep. Many found that the demands of work and family competed with schoolwork for their time. Some were placed into non-credit bearing remedial coursework even after performing well in high school, a problem that is more common than you may think. Others simply felt they did not belong. Many dropped out and made new plans, but without the benefit of advisors. Some entered unaccredited for-profit college programs, others churned through multiple colleges, and some completed short-term degrees but could not find full-time work in their field of study. They accrued debt, but not advancement. And yet they continued to push themselves—holding on, but barely—and blamed themselves for not making the “right” choices.The last group comprises women who were navigating rough seas. These women hailed from poor families or were downwardly mobile from middle- or working-class families. They, too, had high hopes and reasonable plans in high school. Almost all entered college but soon dropped out, starting a cycle of churning through colleges and workplaces. Predatory postsecondary programs that enmeshed them in debt, a labor market that treated them as disposable, and family responsibilities—including, for most, having children themselves—overwhelmed them. Most were neither working nor in school when I interviewed them in the final wave of interviews.
Our current postsecondary system takes advantage of the planfulness exhibited by many working-class and poor girls, setting them up to be ensnared in what sociologist Stefanie DeLuca and colleagues have called “educational traps,” such as for-profit postsecondary institutions, that don’t lead to useful degrees. And without labor market protections, these young women are equally trapped by low-wage, precarious work. Stuck between these two worlds and the demands of family life, many continue to try to complete a degree (or a second degree) in order to work their way up the occupational ladder; now, however, without the guidance they had in high school, these attempts lead more to debt accrual than labor market payoff.
Ultimately, my hope is that readers of my book will come away with a better sense of how planfulness—that is, the ability to make rational goals—is only useful when our institutions are set up to reward plan making.
Jessica Halliday Hardie is in the Department of Sociology at Hunter College, CUNY. She is the author of Best Laid Plans: Women Coming of Age in Uncertain Times.