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STANFORD -- Graduates of America's elite universities are not invulnerable to downturns in the economy, but they are far less vulnerable than everybody else, according to a new study of young Stanford University graduates.
In Cream of the Crop: The Impact of Elite Education in the Decade After College, published this month by BasicBooks, Stanford Professor Herant Katchadourian and Emory University Professor John Boli trace the post-college lives of more than 200 students who earned their bachelor's degrees from Stanford in 1981.
Ten years out of college - on almost every scale relating to career success and personal happiness - the majority of the graduates are leading fulfilling if somewhat hectic lives, the researchers find.
“From all indications, the graduates of elite schools, in terms of their incomes and the types of professions they go into, are different,” says Katchadourian, a professor of psychiatry, behavioral sciences and human biology. “The generation that came of age in the 1980s did very well.”
When asked to evaluate their careers with respect to four C's - contentment, commitment, competence and compensation - most of the 1981 Stanford grads surveyed said they were very satisfied. Less than 10 percent expressed serious dissatisfaction. Indeed, 89 percent of men and 78 percent of women said they would work even if they didn't need the money.
Four out of five had gone on to a graduate or a professional school, mostly in law, business or medicine. Many of them are already in middle and upper management positions. And they were making a lot of money. By age 30, their family earnings averaged over $100,000 - already surpassing the levels that most people, including many graduates of non-elite colleges, will reach in their entire lives.
“One of the most compelling consequences of their career success is their strong upward mobility,” the authors note. “Those of lower than middle-class backgrounds have already surpassed the socioeconomic status of their parents; most of those from more affluent backgrounds have already regained their parents' status.
“Rare are the individuals who feel they have dropped below the social position of their parents, and most of them are likely to rise to higher class position as they move into their late 30s.”
Perhaps the most surprising finding about the Stanford graduates in the first decade after college was the similarity, rather than the differences, between women and men in terms of graduate school attendance, occupational choice, income and career satisfaction.
“That was a really important finding, and it was a surprise,” Katchadourian says. “We had suspected that the differences between these groups would be diminished somewhat by attending Stanford. But if you take out the 12 percent of women who were full-time mothers, there were virtually no significant differences between the genders in terms of what professions they went into, how much money they made and their levels of satisfaction.”
Nor did the researchers find significant differences between minority graduates and whites. Ethnic minorities were just as likely to attend graduate school and complete their degrees, and they were just as likely to enter prestigious professions and to have high incomes.
“Their attitudes and outlooks differ only modestly from those of whites,” the book notes. “They are somewhat more concerned about income and job security in choosing professions . . . but overall they have the same priorities for themselves and their children.”
In their evolving personal and family lives, the 1981 Stanford grads also seemed to be doing well, if less spectacularly. Sixty percent were married at the 10-year mark, 10 percent were living with someone, and one-third had one or more children.
Though they settled down later than their age cohort in the general population, nearly all said they were committed and happy in their marriages. Just 8 percent had been divorced, compared to 28 percent in their age cohort nationally.
Areas of contention in their young relationships related primarily to the sharing of housekeeping tasks and caring for their children. Indeed, it was in this area that gender differences were most pronounced.
“Women graduates also stay home with infants, and provide or arrange for child care far more than men do,” the book notes. “Nevertheless, women and men seem equally satisfied with their primary relationships, and neither sex longs for radical changes on the home front,” the book reports.
“Perhaps the women are resigned to the situation and unwilling to complain too much, consoling themselves with the realization that their partners are far more egalitarian than their fathers were. On the other hand, their responsibility for child rearing slows their career development significantly.”
Gender probably will make even more of a difference in the next decade, the authors add, “as the couples have more children, their lives become more complicated to manage, and more families have the economic means to permit one spouse to be a full-time homemaker.”
If anything is lacking from these graduates' lives, the new book indicates, it is the absence of intellectual pursuits from their post-college lives.
“With some notable exceptions, most of these people say they don't have time to maintain an active intellectual life of reading or going to the theater, or engaging in serious social and political activities,” Katchadourian observes. “Nor is there time for serious involvement in philosophical, religious, internal quests.”
At the same time, he says, the graduates are spending quite a lot of time traveling and exercising - so it may be that intellectual pursuits are just not being given a very high priority. That worries Katchadourian, a former dean of undergraduate education.
“It's interesting,” he says, “that many of these graduates said exactly the same things about purely intellectual pursuits when they were seniors - 'I wish I had time to take this or that course, but right now I'm so absorbed in my major curriculum. I'll study the other things when I'm out of school.'
“There is no question that we are succeeding in preparing these students for satisfying and lucrative careers, but the residues of the liberal education our students were supposed to have gotten are not that clear,” he says.
Katchadourian, best known for his popular Stanford undergraduate course and writings on human sexuality, came up with the idea of studying the Class of '81 while he was the dean of undergraduate education at Stanford in the late 1970s.
“I was not out to do a major study,” he recalls. “I just wanted to find out more about how undergraduates make educational and career choices, so we would improve undergraduate education. Gradually, the whole thing took on a life of its own.”
Katchadourian was joined by Boli, a 1976 Stanford Ph.D. in sociology, who became director of research. The study began in 1977 with a 20 percent random sample of the class of 1981 (some 320 students), augmented by 50 sophomores and 50 junior transfers.
“We asked these students about their various reasons for going to college and what they wanted out of their careers,” explains Boli, now a professor of sociology at Emory University. “Depending on their answers - whether they were more interested in making money or in creativity, for example - we ended up with two scales, one measuring careerism, the other intellectualism.”
The resulting book, Careerism and Intellectualism Among College Students (Jossey-Bass, 1985), described four general types of students: Careerists, Intellectuals, Strivers and Unconnected.
Careerists (those high on the careerism scale) were often the children of middle-class businessmen or professionals, Boli explains. Strongly influenced by family emphasis on career success, they remained relatively fixed in their purpose throughout college, taking courses that would reliably lead to careers, usually in one of the four standard professions: business, law, medicine or engineering.
Intellectuals (high on the intellectualism scale) included many students from families of very high socioeconomic status, Boli says. They became more highly involved with the faculty and their courses. They also found it harder to settle on career choices, and ended up pursuing writing, journalism, the arts and teaching more often than individuals from other groups.
Strivers, who scored highly in both careerism and intellectualism, came from both ends of the economic spectrum. Often interested in two or even three major fields, many spread themselves too thinly and ended up with lower grades than other types. At the same time, they indicated the highest level of satisfaction with their undergraduate experience.
Unconnected students, who scored low in both careerism and intellectualism, “felt much less certain about their career choices than other students and their majors often stemmed more from default than active choice.” They were more likely to stop out than most students, were notably less involved in extracurricular activities, and reported less satisfaction with their undergraduate experience than other students.
To find out what had happened to these students 10 years later, Katchadourian and Boli mailed follow-up questionnaires to the original participants; 70 percent, or about 200, were returned. The researchers then conducted follow-up interviews with about half of those respondents, choosing a sample that represented all the different typologies.
Katchadourian himself conducted about 85 of the 100 interviews, a task that required most of a year.
“I was helped by the fact that many of our alumni are clustered in Southern California, the Bay Area, the Chicago area and the New York-Washington-Boston triangle,” he says. “But I also made a point of going to some pretty far-away places, so we could catch these people. Most of them were very happy to talk with someone about how their lives had unfolded.”
As it turned out, about 40 percent of the former students had remained true to type. Many careerist students ended up being conventional and conservative in such things as choice of occupation, entrepreneurship and (for men) gender roles in the household. They made more money and reported being much less engaged in the life of the mind.
Intellectuals remained more engaged in the life of the mind, and not so single-mindedly committed to their careers. On the other hand, they made less money than the Careerists and were less upwardly mobile. Unconnected graduates also made less money; they were more adventuresome in their career choices, entering a wider variety of occupations, opening their own businesses and joining less standard volunteer groups.
More than half of the subjects, however, had changed from one type to another in the decade after college. About half of the Careerists, for example, became Strivers - their latent intellectual interests blossoming after college, while about half the Unconnected became Careerists or Intellectuals.
Finally, although about half the Strivers held their ground, “the other half found that maintaining strong commitments to both intellectual and career pursuits was simply too demanding. Over one-quarter became Intellectuals and one-sixth became Careerists, along with a few who threw in the towel and turned Unconnected.”
Where will the graduates be 10 years from now? Surprisingly, less than half anticipate staying on their current career tracks. “The major change they anticipate in their working lives lies not in actually changing careers but in striking out on their own,” the authors note.
“Exactly half expect to own their own businesses or be partners in professional organizations within 10 years, almost a tripling of the current rate. Many of those now in technical or line positions expect to move into managerial jobs. Just over one-fifth see themselves working in the public sector, more than double the current rate.”
At the same time, the authors predict that gender differences will become greater. “Women are not more likely than men to anticipate major career changes in the next decade, but a considerably higher proportion of women (30 percent versus 13 percent) express uncertainty about the future,” the authors note.
Women are also more likely than men (69 to 42 percent) to anticipate some form of major personal change in the next decade. “The difference is once again due to childbearing and child care: 76 percent of women but only 22 percent of men plan to take parental leave from work.”
Katchadourian will most likely be retired in 2001, when the graduates of 1981 hit the 20-year mark. Still, he says, “depending on what else I am doing, it would be interesting to continue this research. My co-author is younger than I am, so he will still be active. As with any longitudinal study, the last word is far from said.”
Cream of the Crop is dedicated “to the participants of the cohort follow-up study - be they Careerists, Intellectuals, Strivers or Unconnected.” It is available at the Stanford Bookstore or can be ordered from BasicBooks by calling 1-800-331-3761.
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