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146 Chapter 6 |  “In and Out Before You Know It”: The Educational and Occupational Traps of Expedited Adulthood In chapter 5, we told the stories of two young adults, Bob and Bridget, who had their sights set on college and seemed to have the intellectual acumen to get there. But we saw their promising futures—and those of many of their peers—derailed by the social origins they had seemed destined to soar above. Instead of spending four years in college discovering who they wanted to be, these disadvantaged youth found themselves on an expedited path to adulthood, in a hurry to get out on their own and gain financial stability. As high school graduation approached they began to perceive a fork in the path ahead. One option was the most expedient— direct entry into the labor market after high school. The second was some form of postsecondary education, enrolling in either a two-­or four-­ year college or a for-­ profit trade school that offered an “insta-­ career” that could be achieved in a year or less. In this chapter, we explore these early career and college starts. We begin with the question: What are the labor market experiences of youth, especially those who do not go on directly to a postsecondary institution? Second, we ask: Why are youth drawn to trade schools and occupationally oriented programs offered by community colleges rather than more academically focused programs at two-­or four-­ year schools? Even in these short-­ duration programs, why don’t more of them persist? And why do they so often compound one failure with another try, lengthening the process of acquiring a postsecondary credential considerably and often even exceeding the four years that would have been required to gain a bachelor ’s degree? “In and Out Before You Know It”       147 First, we look at the youth who take the most expedited route and enter the labor market directly after high school, usually triggered by both the urge to get out on their own and financial necessity. Viewing college as too expensive or “not for them,” these youth, mostly male, try their hand in the low-­wage service and retail sectors. They aspire to traditional working-­ class careers in auto mechanics, construction, and carpentry, but rarely find work in those fields. Instead, if they can get work at all, they settle for jobs in the fast-­ food industry or in big-­ box stores—even after seeking help from employment centers. But they soon discover that the work does not pay nearly enough, it is rarely engaging, and most of the jobs will not help them cultivate the careers they seek. Before long, most start to consider going back to school. Next, we spend the bulk of this chapter looking at the experiences of youth in the postsecondary education market and how they make trade-­ offs and decisions about where to go and what careers to pursue. Middle-­ class youth see higher education as a four-­ year plan (or more if they go to graduate school), but most low-­ income youth in Baltimore find that time line far too long and uncertain (and expensive); instead, they tend to make their postsecondary education decisions on the basis of how closely linked the course of study is to a concrete occupation and of how quickly they can finish school and start work. Unfortunately, as we show, this strategy ends up costing them in the long run: quick decisions to launch often entail a commitment to a trade before they have had a chance to explore the occupational paths that really fit their abilities and interests. Their quick launch triggers a series of fits and starts as they learn the hard way what they are interested in and how to navigate the confusing maze of community colleges and the exploitative traps of for-­ profit trade schools. “A REAL LIFETIME JOB” Twenty-­ year-­ old Brandon announced, “College is not for everyone,” when we interviewed him in 2010.1 In line with national trends, opting for the labor market rather than school was more common among the young men we spoke with than it was among their female counterparts—only 38 percent of males tried college (including trade school) in the years after high school, compared to 64 percent of females.2 This is partly because slightly fewer males finished high school; of these high school graduates, 34 percent of the men chose work over school, while the figure was only 17 percent...


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