Aim High Without Fear

Amid debates about encouraging all Americans to get at least some postsecondary education, a potential downside has been identified. Social scientists have long speculated that those who aspire to a college degree but fail to attain one will suffer psychologically as a result of reaching too high for dreams they couldn’t realize.

But new research suggests otherwise, and may reinforce the views of those who (like President Obama) say that aiming high is always the best message to send young people.

John R. Reynolds, a professor of sociology at Florida State University and co-author of the study, said that “the only way to guarantee negative mental health outcomes is not trying. Aiming high and failing is not consequential for mental health, while trying may lead to higher achievements and the mental and material benefits that go along with those achievements.”

Reynolds and his co-author, Chardie L. Baird, an assistant professor of sociology at Kansas State University, have just published their research in the American Sociological Review.

Their paper notes an abundance of theorizing and studies by sociologists about the potential damage of encouraging those facing long odds to aim high on going to college, and also the evidence about the high rates of such students who aspire to complete degrees but don’t do so.

The scholars tracked this population using two databases — the National Longitudinal Study and the Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health — and compared those individuals from various groups who did or did not achieve their educational plans.

From a mental health standpoint, they found little difference between the two groups. While there was more depression among those with lower educational attainment, that is consistent with multiple studies that have found that those with better educations have better mental and physical health. What the scholars found not to exist was a difference that could be attributed to aiming high and not hitting the target. The study controlled for various factors — including pre-college mental health.

Those who don’t achieve their goals appear to develop “adaptive resilience” that helps them through the disappointment without any notable impact on their mental health, the authors say.

“Results indicate almost no long-term emotional costs of ‘shooting for the stars’ rather than planning for the probable,” the authors write. And therefore, they add: “Society should not dissuade unpromising students from dreams of college.”

Permalink: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/22/adjustment
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