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10 years later, researchers wonder what influenced HS seniors

Researchers are wondering what graduates in 2000 from Tacoma high schools have been up to and what influenced their decisions.
Mark Strozier
Researchers are wondering what graduates in 2000 from Tacoma high schools have been up to and what influenced their decisions.

"We found that self-esteem mattered little ... "

Could you have predicted your future in high school? Sociologists at the University of Washington asked Tacoma’s class of 2000 to try.

They got nearly every senior to take a survey about their lives and future goals. Now a decade later, researchers are following up with the former students to find out what has influenced their life paths.

In the spring of 2000, nearly everyone in Tacoma’s senior class thought their futures were wide open.

“Most students were very ambitious, probably unrealistically ambitious,” said sociology professor Charles Hirschman, who directs the UW Beyond High School project. “Probably about 70-80 percent expected to be college graduates.”

By having students project ahead, he says researchers could determine the best indicators of their future paths. Turns out, it wasn’t the students’ own predictions. His research into academic records shows only about a quarter have completed that 4-year degree.

Surprise findings

Hirschman says parents’ education and wealth were a much more tell-tale sign of a student’s future success. That might not come as a shock, but a few other findings could.

“We found that self-esteem mattered little,” he said.

Neither did having parents who monitored their kids’ every move. 

“We looked at parents who were controlling more of their children’s behavior. They were watching who their friends were, what time they would come home from school ...”

Immigrant parents stand out

But one thing that did play in, he said, was “having an immigrant parent that motivates students to be more successful in going on to college.”

For the 10-year follow-up survey, Hirschman is trying to figure out how all these factors have shaped the rest of the students’ lives – now that they’re adults. He is also asking the former students about how civically engaged they are, whether they had kids and if they eat healthfully and exercise.

So far, his team has tracked down nearly 70 percent of them. Next month, the researchers will stop looking for former students and start figuring out why they ended up where they are. 

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Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.