When Can We Expect the Unexpected? Predicting Educational Attainment When it Differs from Previous Expectations


  • This study was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA01411) and was conducted as part of the Center for the Analysis for Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (#0322356). The authors appreciate the technical and editorial assistance of Virginia Laetz and Kathryn Johnson.

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Emily Messersmith, Center for Developmental Science, University of North Carolina, 100 East Franklin St., CB 8115, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 [e-mail: emessers@email.unc.edu].


Individuals' expectations are strong predictors of their behaviors; educational expectations predict enrollment in postsecondary education. Yet in many cases, a youth's previous educational expectations are not met or are exceeded. This study examines correlates of educational expectations and unexpected educational attainment using longitudinal data from Monitoring the Future, a U.S. national study. Demographic characteristics, educational experiences in high school, and other risk and protective factors were related to expectations for educational attainment during high school. Logistic regressions indicated that high school curriculum, average grades, educational aspirations, and parents' educational level were particularly strong indicators of youth not meeting their expectation to graduate from a 4-year college, or graduating from college despite expecting not to graduate by age 25/26. We discuss the implications of unexpected pathways in terms of discontinuity during transitions and consider the implications for improved educational and career counseling during high school.