Life after high school can be tough, even for those who seemed destined for success or thought they had all of life’s answers at age 18. As many of us can attest, life after high school rarely goes as planned and can be full of obstacles and U-turns that we never could have anticipated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many happy and successful people I know changed majors in college, took a career path that had nothing to do with their degree, or didn’t go to college at all.
Sometimes, challenges put people on a new road to success. Other times, they have the opposite effect, even for the academically smartest students in high school.
A recent “Valedictorians Project” by the Boston Globe captured just how fast real-world realities can change the course of peoples’ lives and in some cases, crush post-high school dreams. The project involved talking to 93 valedictorians from Boston public schools who graduated from 2005 to 2007. Granted, this provides a fairly limited window into high school graduates, but it still offers some startling insights.
Nearly a quarter of those 93 top-of-their-class students wanted to become doctors. None did. Four became homeless, including one who graduated from an Ivy League university, one ended up in prison, 25 percent did not get a bachelor’s degree within six years, and 40 percent are making less than $50,000 a year. Not exactly the dream lives they probably envisioned. However, one in seven of these valedictorians makes more than $100,000 a year, and more than a quarter went on to earn advanced degrees.
Many of these valedictorians said they experienced culture shock, social isolation, and a disconnection with classmates in college — certainly not something unique to any one group.
The Globe also interviewed 65 valedictorians from the same years from randomly selected Boston suburbs. Their stories are perhaps more in line with what’s expected from top students. More than one-third of this suburban group earns more than $100,000 annually, two-thirds have advanced degrees, and eight are medical doctors. This suggests that where kids go to school — the economics and demographics are markedly different between inner city and suburban schools — plays a significant factor in determining what’s traditionally defined as career success.
The project demonstrated that finishing first in high school is not a guarantee or even an indicator of how the rest of a student’s life will turn out. Various other studies over the years have shown that valedictorians, while often ending up in good jobs, are not the people who shape, shake up, or influence their industries.
A 2017 book, Barking up the Wrong Tree, mentions a study that tracked 81 valedictorians for 14 years after graduation. While they all did well, none were considered visionaries or standout successes. The theory is that top students thrive in schools that reward following the rules — not innovators who want to change the rules or try different approaches. As the author said, “They (valedictorians) don’t go on to reinvent the system or lead it. Instead, they’re part of it.”
I suppose this research boils down to one essential truth: What happens in high school does not define the rest of our lives. We’re free to capitalize on, or squander, the opportunities afforded to us and shape our own futures, regardless of what stage of our lives we’re in.