Youth Aspirations: Imagining and Navigating Futures in Higher Education

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Youth Aspirations: Imagining and Navigating Futures in Higher Education

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This guidebook takes a new approach to preparing youth for college. Rather than focusing on grades, ACTS, or financing, the activities and program suggestions in this guidebook help young people envision having higher education in their future and help them begin to take steps toward aspiration achievement that include relying on supports, navigating barriers, and reimagining what is possible for them. At its core, this guidebook is about fostering the belief among young people that college is for them (i.e. they belong) and it is within their reach.


The content of this guidebook is rooted in elements of positive youth development, critical pedagogy, and draws from research on educational attainment and youth aspirations of young people in the US and around the world. This guidebook helps youth aspire while also helping them be active agents in attaining their aspirations by acknowledging and addressing any social constraints and opportunities along their pathway. This guidebook recognizes that higher education attainment is important for young people to secure employment; but it emphasizes the idea that higher educational attainment holds deep intrinsic value to youth. Higher education attainment can broaden opportunities for youth to feel respected, secure a sense of dignity, and be a force for social change. The program model and activities included in this guidebook are designed to affect the broader well-being of young people through supporting their abilities to achieve their aspirations in and through higher education. This guidebook is not intended to be prescriptive. Instead, it offers four research-based elements for success on youths’ pathway to higher education that educators can implement flexibly in a way that best meets the needs of organizations and the youth they serve. These are elements that prepare youth for higher education in a way that complements more traditional academic and financial preparation that are commonplace in the formal school setting. This guidebook is designed with middle school aged youth (who might be the first in their family to go to college) in mind and to be implemented on a college campus, but can be adapted for other age groups and other learning environments. By including these essential elements in programs, educators will be granted opportunities to deepen their understanding of youths’ lived experiences, identities, and values related to education, with the hope that this will better equip them to create conditions of support. Youth participants will have a chance to deeply and critically imagine futures in higher education. They will also reflect on, understand, and make plans to act on barriers and supports they face along their pathways toward aspiration achievement.

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The development of this guidebook was supported by the Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) program with funds from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). It came about as part of a 5-year grant under award number 1305S32461 and led by Principal Investigator, Jennifer Skuza.

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