The transition from school to work among African American and White high school graduates in a national longitudinal sample: An integrated life course analysis

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

First Committee Member

Marvin P. Dawkins, Committee Chair


The purpose of this study was to examine differences and similarities in early occupational attainment between African American and White non-college bound, high school graduates in the transition from school to work A life course theoretical model was developed to integrate individual and structural factors in an effort to increase the understanding of early labor force experiences of African Americans and Whites at the postsecondary level. The integrated life course model included individual level variables derived from research literature on human capital, status attainment, and cultural deficits and structural variables derived from reproduction and ecological theories.Four general hypotheses were developed to test aspects of the model using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988 (NELS:88): (1) the cultural capital hypothesis, which states that the effect of family background on postsecondary employment is mediated by parental investment in culturally enhancing activities, cultural classes and educational resources; (2) the social capital hypothesis, which states that the effect of family background on postsecondary employment is mediated by attachment, interaction and involvement with occupational preparedness activities in the family, school, and peer group; (3) the oppositional culture hypothesis, which states that African American-White differences in postsecondary employment are due, in part, to African Americans' perception of fewer returns to education and greater resistance to mainstream mobility goals; and (4) the African American family achievement orientation hypothesis, which states that successful postsecondary employment is more likely among African American families with higher socioeconomic status, parental mobility goals and interpersonal family relations that place emphasis on children's occupational achievement.Data used in this analysis (NELS:88) were based on a large, nationally representative sample of high school students who were surveyed as eighth graders (1988), tenth graders (1990), twelfth (1992) and two years after graduation (1994). NELS, therefore, covered the experiences of eighth graders as they made the transition from middle to high school into post-secondary institutions or the work force. The study was restricted to non-college bound high school graduates.While three of the four hypotheses received general support (cultural capital, social capital and family achievement orientation), one hypothesis was not supported (oppositional culture). These results are consistent with previous studies on the importance of cultural and social capital, along with family achievement orientation, in improving chances for early occupational success of high school graduates, but sharply departs from the previous literature, which indicate fewer returns and greater resistance to mobility outcomes for African Americans. This study revealed that, in comparison to their white counterparts, African American high school graduates expressed greater optimism for their chances for future success and more support for education as an important factor in realizing their occupational expectations. However, neither the optimistic future outlook nor pro-school behavior of African American graduates improved their chances of post-secondary employment relative to white graduates.This study applied an integrated life course model in attempting to broaden our understanding of post-secondary employment experiences of African Americans and Whites. Future research should extend this model to achieve a more complete understanding of the post-secondary early employment process.


Black Studies; Education, Guidance and Counseling; Sociology, Individual and Family Studies; Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies

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