Life After High School

We're obsessed with those four years. But new research shows we're not defined by them

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Danielle Levitt for TIME

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"We've all wondered at times if high school determines who we become as adults, and now we have the empirical data to test that notion," says Pamela Herd, an associate professor of public affairs and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Herd is the co-director of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, one of the largest and longest-running investigations of how lives unfold in high school and beyond. The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, has followed more than 10,000 members of Wisconsin's 1957 graduating class for more than 50 years, beginning when they were seniors and continuing through decades of establishing careers and raising families to their lives as retirees and grandparents.

The Wisconsin program is the granddaddy of a generation of studies that are just coming to fruition. They're being joined by a slew of shorter-term studies conducted by psychologists, sociologists, economists and epidemiologists, researchers from varied fields who have all taken an interest in the high school years. "Social scientists are realizing that many of our adult outcomes can be traced back, at least in part, to our experiences in high school," says Robert Crosnoe, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Fitting In, Standing Out, a new book that draws on his seven-year study of the adolescent social scene.

It's not just the turbulent life stage of adolescence that has consequences for our later lives, Crosnoe stresses, but also the interactions of this developmental transition with the structures and hierarchies of high school. The institution has its origins in the secondary schools of the early 19th century, but it was only in the past 50 years or so--when high schools swelled as the children of the baby boom entered adolescence and youth culture took center stage--that our popular notion of high school took shape. Namely: high school as a formative life experience, as social as it is academic, in which students encounter a jostling bazaar of potential identities--from jock to prep to geek--and choose (or are assigned) one that will stay with them for years to come.

And yes, there's some truth to the yearbook predictions, social scientists find. Broadly speaking, the brainy grinds and the glad-handing class officers achieve success as adults. The jocks are fitter and in better health. The outcasts and dropouts are more likely to be depressed and unemployed. The kids who drank and smoked pot under the bleachers are mostly still drinking and doping, sometimes to excess.

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