Without access to counseling in high school, many ambitious yet disadvantaged students still end up in schools where they’re most likely to drop out and accrue lots of debt.
The most common image of Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city, is a place racked by crime, poverty, and despair—a perception largely fueled by the news media and popular television shows like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Now comes a research report that debunks the prevailing view of young people from Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods as “thugs” and “criminals.” It reveals a striking picture of black Baltimore youth striving, persevering, and working persistently to get ahead—only to find themselves undereducated and underemployed.
As part of a decade-long longitudinal ethnographic study that began in 2003, the sociologist Stefanie DeLuca closely followed the life course of 150 black youth growing up in Baltimore’s public housing projects whose families participated in a federal housing experiment. Researchers wanted to gain a deeper understanding of these young people’s lives to investigate the notion that intergenerational poverty is unsolvable. But as the study wrapped up in 2013, with the youth on the brink of adulthood, an unexpected theme emerged with respect to their college experiences.
MEGAN M. HOLLAND & STEFANIE DELUCAIncreasing numbers of low-income and minority youth are now pursuing shorter-duration sub-baccalaureate credentials at for-profit trade and technical schools. However, many students drop out of these schools, leaving with large debts and few job prospects. Despite these dismal outcomes, we know very little about students’ experiences in for-profit programs and how these institutions shape postsecondary attainment. Using data from fieldwork with 150 inner-city African American youth, we examine why disadvantaged youth are attracted to these schools and why they struggle to complete certifications. In contrast to previous research, we find that the youth in our study have quite modest ambitions and look to for-profit trade schools as the quickest and most direct route to work. However, youth receive little information or guidance to support such postsecondary transitions. Therefore, the very element that makes for-profit trade school programs seem the most appealing—a curriculum focused on one particular career—becomes an obstacle when it requires youth to commit to a program of study before they have explored their interests. When youth realize they do not like or are not prepared for their chosen career, they adopt coping strategies that keep them in school but swirling between programs, rather than accumulating any credentials.