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Gender Differences in Educational Aspirations of Rural Youth Judith L. Meece , Soo-yong Byun , Matthew J. Irvin, Thomas W. Farmer, Karyl Askew, and Bryan C. Hutchins National Research Center on Rural Education Support, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. INTRODUCTION. METHODS.

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Gender Differences in Educational Aspirations of Rural Youth

Judith L. Meece, Soo-yongByun, Matthew J. Irvin, Thomas W. Farmer,Karyl Askew, and Bryan C. Hutchins

National Research Center on Rural Education Support, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill




This study is part of a broader national investigation to examine preparation for the transition to adulthood in rural high schools across the United States. Data were collected during the 2007-2008 academic year. Youth in grades 9 – 12 were recruited from 73 randomly selected rural and small town schools. Trained research personnel traveled to schools to group administer a student survey to all consented participants.


This study included 5,660 (47% boys; 53% girls). The largest self-identified ethnic and racial groups included Whites (67%), Hispanics or Latinos (9%), African Americans (8%), and Native Americans (4%). In addition, 12% of students identified themselves as multi-racial.


Independent variables. Family backgroundincluded: (a) perceived family economic hardship, (b) parental education, (c) family structure (two-parent vs. single- parent or other nontraditional families), (d) number of siblings, (e) parent respect and identification, and (f) parental expectations for child’s college education.

Student characteristicsincluded: (a) race/ethnicity, (b) grade level (9th to 12th), (c) rural identity, (d) positive perception of economic opportunity at home communities, and (e) residential aspirations (home state vs. other state vs. don’t know). For school-level variable, we considered college proximity.

School experience included: (a) curricular track (college prep vs. others), (b) retention (ever retained vs. never retained), (c) achievement, (d) postsecondary preparation, (e) academic self-concept, (f) school valuing, (g) teacher’s educational expectation for the student, and (h) teachers’ assessment of social and behavioral characteristics of the student.

Dependent variable.Students’ educational aspirations were measured by asking students how far in school they would most like to go. Possible answers ranged from “less than high school graduation” to “Ph.D., M.D., or equivalent.” Students who reported “I don’t know” were excluded from analysis. For the multivariate analyses, educational aspirations were treated as a continuous variable by transforming into years of schooling (e.g., less than high school graduation = 11; Ph.D., M.D., or equivalent = 22).

Descriptive Statistics

Descriptive statistics for gender differences are presented in Figure 1 and Table 1. Girls desired to attain more schooling (17.4 years) than boys (16.5 years). Significant gender differences were found in key aspects of rural adolescents’ schooling experiences: postsecondary preparation programs, school valuing, academic self-concept, and teacher expectations (see Table 1). With the exception of academic self-concept, the gender differences in schooling experiences favored girls in this sample. Girls also reported higher parental expectations for college education. In contrast, boys reported higher levels of parental education and more positive perceptions of economic opportunities in their home communities than did girls.

Predictors of Educational Aspirations by Gender

Table 2 presents coefficients from regression analyses of educational aspirations on schooling experiences by gender. The model controls for the influence of family-, student-, and school-level variables. Across both samples, students’ self-reports of their schooling experiences were significant predictors of their future educational aspirations. Early grade retention was a significant predictor for boys’, but not girls’ educational aspirations. Additionally, teachers’ educational expectations, but not social development ratings, were significant predictors of educational aspirations. The findings also indicated that the influence of teacher expectations on educational aspirations were stronger for boys than for girls (see Table 2).

Nearly one third of America’s youth attend rural public schools (Provasnick et al., 2007). Contrary to research in the 1980s (e.g., Cobb, McIntire, & Pratt, 1989), the educational aspirations of rural youth have been increasing over the last decades, with girls reporting higher educational and occupational aspirations than boys (Chenoweth & Galliher, 2004; Elder & Conger, 2000). Gender differences in the future aspirations of rural youth have been attributed to a variety of individual and contextual influences such as local employment opportunities, parental and teacher encouragement, high academic achievement, residential preferences, involvement in career-oriented school activities, value of education to future plans, and numerous perceived educational and occupational barriers (Chenoweth & Galliher, 2004; Crockett, Binghan, & Raymond, 2000; Lapan, Tucker, Koscuilek, 2003; McWhirter, Torres, Salgado, & Valdez, 2007). For the most part, prior studies of rural youth’s aspirations have been constrained by sample sizes, geographical location, or limited analytic frameworks. The present study draws on a large national study of 5,360 rural high school students from across the United States.


The study is grounded in an ecological framework, which emphasizes the influence of multiple interrelated contexts including the community, family, and school context, as well as individual characteristics of the adolescent (Bronfenbrenner, 1977). A particular focus of this study is the influence of school characteristics and schooling experiences which have been relatively neglected in prior research on rural youth. In the general adolescent literature, research documenting the role of schools in youth development has identified a number of important effects from the proximal influences of teacher-student relations in the classroom to the more distal role of school policies, composition, and configurations (see Eccles & Roeser, 2010). Using this conceptual model the school context, the present study examines the influence of schooling experiences (e.g., school climate, teacher expectations, high school program, school adjustment, etc.) in explaining gender differences in rural youth’s future educational aspirations. Both psychological and sociological research has shown that youth’s educational aspirations are significant predictors of occupational attainment and well-being in the adult years (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Posterelli, 2001; Eccles, Vida, & Barber, 2004; Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998).

Analytic Strategies

First, we conducted univariate linear, logistic, and multinomial regression for each of the independent variables, depending on their scales, with the gender dummy variable (i.e., female [reference group] vs. male). The aim was to examine (unadjusted) differences in background characteristics and school experiences between female and male students.

Second, we conducted a series of ordinary least square (OLS) regression analyses predicting educational aspirations by gender. To more systematically investigate the relationships between the independent variables and educational aspirations, we estimated the four models for each gender group.

Finally, using a t-test, we tested whether there were significant gender differences in the influence of each of the independent variables on educational aspirations.

For the missing data for the control variables, we employed a multiple imputation technique with the ice option in the Stata software package (Royston, 2004). We generated five data sets with five different sets of imputed values, and averaged the coefficients and standard errors from analyses across the five data sets using the mim option in Stata (Royston, 2004). To address the nested nature of the current data (i.e., students within sampled schools), we used the cluster option in Stata, which generates robust standard errors by downwardly adjusting for the inflated standard errors resulting from the violation of the independent errors assumption (Rogers, 1993).



The specific questions addressed in this study include the following:

1. Are there gender differences in rural youth’s educational aspirations?

2. Are there gender differences in key family background and schooling experiences?

3. Are these gender differences related to adolescents’ educational aspirations?

4. What is the relative influence of schooling experiences with family background characteristics controlled?

5. Do schooling experience differentially predict the educational aspirations of male and female adolescents in the sample?

Drawing on data for rural high school students (N = 5,660), this study examined gender differences in educational aspirations and possible sources for these differences. Consistent with recent research on rural youth, the results indicated that rural girls reported higher educational aspirations than did their male counterparts. While the results identified important gender differences in youth’s perceptions of economic opportunities, parental educational expectations, and residential preferences, the primary focus of this study was the role of school characteristics and experiences. To summarize key findings, there were significant gender differences in schooling experiences as well as educational aspirations generally favoring girls. Compared to boys, girls reported higher levels of academic achievement, postsecondary education preparation, school valuing, and these ratings were positively related to future educational aspirations for both boys and girls. Teachers held higher educational expectations for rural girls than boys, and teacher expectations were more strongly related to boys’ than girls’ postsecondary educational aspirations. Boys were also more likely than girls to experience early grade retention in school, and these experiences were predictive of future educational aspirations for boys only. With all other variables controlled, including school characteristics (e.g., poverty status, size, & rural locale), schooling experiences explained additional variance in educational aspirations for both boys (18%) and girls (13%) in this rural sample. Overall, the data support examining the role that schools may be play in preparing rural youth for the future. Our data suggest that girls, more than so than boys, are preparing to leave their rural communities. Additional research is needed to examine the developmental pathways that enable rural youth to fulfill their postsecondary aspirations.

Figure 1. Educational Aspirations by Gender

This poster is based on research conducted by the National Research Center on Rural Education Support (NRCRES) at the University of North Carolina. This work was supported by grant #R305A04056 from the Institute of Education

Sciences.The authors are responsible for the contents of this poster. No statement in this poster should be construed as an official position of the granting agency.