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The influence of gender, generation level, parents' education level, and perceived barriers on the educational aspirations of Mexican American high school students.

A portion of social-cognitive career theory (R. W. Lent, S. D. Brown, & G. Hackett, 1994) was tested by examining contextual factors related to the educational aspirations of 186 Mexican American high school students. A 3-step hierarchical regression analysis was conducted to determine the influence of gender, generation level, parents' education level, and perceived educational barriers on educational aspirations. Results indicated that perceived educational barriers significantly predicted students' educational aspirations above and beyond the influence of gender, generation level, and parents' education level. Implications for Mexican American students' educational goals are provided.

In a study on educational aspirations, 90% of Mexican American junior high school students reported the following: "Education is the key to get ahead in this country. I'll get as much education as I can" (St-Hilaire, 2002, p. 1033). Nearly 50% of these students indicated aspirations of attending graduate school, yet only 30% of the students expected to reach that level. Clearly, Mexican Americans recognize the importance of an education; however, only 57% graduate from high school, and a mere 11% matriculate from college (Stoops, 2004). Bearing in mind that 35% of the Latina/o U.S. population is younger than 18 years old, it is important to examine the academic achievement of Latina/o youth, particularly youth of Mexican descent, because this subgroup represents more than half of the total Latina/o U.S. population (Ramirez & de la Cruz, 2003) and is a sizable group in the primary and secondary school pipeline. Thus, the main purpose of the current study was to examine the influence of several person-level variables on the educational aspirations of Mexican American high school students.

Social-Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT)

SCCT (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994, 2000) was selected as the theoretical framework for the current study given its emphasis on contextual variables in career development and its applicability with diverse racial/ethnic groups (e.g., Flores & O'Brien, 2002; Ladany, Melincoff, Constantine, & Love 1997; Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001; Mau & Bikos, 2000). Through SCCT, Lent et al. (1994, 2000) theorized that person factors, which consist of an individual's predisposed biological attributes (e.g., gender, ethnicity), and background contextual factors (e.g., social support, environment) affect learning experiences. In turn, these learning experiences are hypothesized to influence self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Also critical to SCCT are proximal contextual factors (e.g., perceived barriers), which are hypothesized to play a crucial role during the decision-making and goal-setting process and may directly influence choice goals. Person factors, background contextual factors, and proximal contextual factors are all distinct variables yet are influential to goals via complex reciprocal relations (Lent et al., 1994). In essence, through SCCT, researchers can examine how varying levels of vocational aspirations are influenced by individuals' interests, decision making, and achievements as well as by personal and environmental variables (Lent et al., 1994). Our study extends this theory to the domain of educational goals and focuses on the links among person (i.e., generation level), background contextual (i.e., parents' education level), and proximal contextual (i.e., perceived educational barriers) variables on educational aspirations.

Most SCCT-based studies have focused on how career development is influenced by cognitive-person variables (e.g., goals, outcome expectations, self-efficacy), whereas the influence of environmental factors (e.g., social, cultural) on career development has received less attention (Lent et al., 2000). SCCT suggests that perceptions of barriers, or the likelihood that an individual will encounter an adverse condition, are influenced by environmental variables and individual characteristics. SCCT posits that if perceptions of adverse environmental factors are present, the individual is less likely to develop career interests into goals and, furthermore, to develop those goals into action (Lent et al., 2000). To minimize the gap between ability and actual achievement in the United States' ever growing multicultural society, future research is needed to adequately measure perceptions of barriers among people of color (McWhirter, Hackett, & Bandalos, 1998) and how these perceptions both directly influence and mediate the relations to educational goals.

Educational Aspirations

Studies have found that person inputs, such as Latina/o subgroup membership (e.g., Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban), and contextual factors, such as socioeconomic status, were related to the educational aspirations of Latina/o students (Arbona & Novy, 1991). Specifically, Mexican American college students had more doubts about obtaining a college degree than did students from other Latina/o subgroups (Arbona & Novy, 1991). Research has also demonstrated that Latina/o high school students perceived that teachers and friends had lower educational aspirations for them than for their White and African American peers (Cheng & Starks, 2002). A further study on rural, gifted, and talented students of color found that larger hometown communities, higher parental education levels, and greater academic comfort were related to graduate education aspirations (McWhirter, Larson, & Daniels, 1996). In addition, parental support and low levels of perceived barriers were related to Mexican American girls' selection of prestigious careers (Flores & O'Brien 2002). These studies suggest that background resources, role models, and environmental support may influence Latina/o students' educational aspirations.

College aspirations are a strong predictor of academic achievement among Latina/o high school students (Buriel & Cardoza, 1988; Kao & Tienda, 1998). However, although the majority of Latinas/os had high educational aspirations (Arbona & Novy, 1991), they reported lower college and graduate school aspirations than did other racial/ethnic groups (Kao & Tienda, 1998; Mau & Bikos, 2000). This finding suggests that Latinas/os may encounter or expect to encounter environmental and social barriers toward their educational goals (Arbona, 1990).

Generation Level

Mixed findings have been reported regarding the significance of generation level on Mexican American students' education. Some studies have found that first-generation Mexican American students had higher educational aspirations than did second-generation Mexican American students (St-Hilaire, 2002), whereas other researchers (e.g., Zhou, 2001) have reported that second-generation Mexican American students completed higher levels of education than did first-generation Mexican American students. First-generation Latina/o high school students experienced barriers to graduation due to difficulty with English comprehension and academic exit exams (Bohon, Macpherson, & Atiles, 2005). More specifically, first-generation Latina high school students did not perceive a need to aspire academically and believed that family and home responsibilities were more important than education. Male peers believed that an education was unnecessary to gain sufficient income to support their future household. Among a sample of Latina college students, generation level was not related to their perceived educational barriers (Gloria, Castellanos, & Orozco, 2005).

Research findings are mixed regarding the influence of acculturation, a strong correlate to generation level (Cuellar, Arnold, & Maldonado, 1995), on the educational aspirations of Mexican American students. Although some studies (Hurtado & Gauvain, 1997; McWhirter et al., 1998) have found that acculturation was not related to Mexican American high school students' college aspirations, Ramos and Sanchez (1995) found that less acculturated Mexican American high school students reported lower college aspirations than did their more acculturated peers. Furthermore, Mexican American adolescent girls who were more Anglo acculturated tended to choose less prestigious and more traditional careers than did less Anglo acculturated Mexican American adolescent girls (Flores & O'Brien 2002). Given these conflicting findings, more research is needed to understand this relationship.

Parental Influence on Education

Latina/o parents' interest in the education of their children is often misconstrued as nonexistent (Valencia & Black, 2002). On the contrary, Latina/o parents want their children to succeed academically; however, language difficulties, cultural differences, and unfamiliarity with the U.S. school system arc barriers to involvement in their children's education (Bohon et al., 2005). Prior studies have suggested that perceived parental expectations were related to Mexican American high school students' higher educational aspirations (Ramos & Sanchez, 1995). For Mexican American girls, fathers' support had positive effects on their educational plans (McWhirter et al., 1998). On the other hand, fathers who were migrant workers encouraged their adolescent children to drop out of school to help the family reach financial goals (Bohon et al., 2005).

The education level of Latina high school students' mothers has been found to strongly predict college attendance and persistence (Cardoza, 1991). Latina/o parents with high educational aspirations for themselves tended to have children with high levels of interest in college, whereas parents with minimal educational aspirations had children with similarly low or unidentified aspirations (Behnke, Pierey, & Diversi, 2004). Although many studies have examined parents' educational goals for their Latina/o children, there are fewer studies that have examined the influence of parents' actual education level on Latina/o students' educational aspirations and perceived educational barriers.

Educational Barriers

The career development literature indicates that educational outcomes are influenced by students' perceptions of barriers. However, McWhirter et al. (1998) found no relationship between perceived educational barriers and the educational plans of Mexican American girls. Research has found that, compared with White college students, ethnic minority college students perceived greater educational barriers and were more likely to view their edinicity as a barrier to educational goal attainment (Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001). Similarly, among ethnically diverse high school students, Latinas/os reported having the lowest college aspirations among all students (Mau & Bikos, 2000). Researchers have also examined the influence of gender on perceptions of educational barriers and found that female college students (Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001) and ethnically diverse female high school students (Mau & Bikos, 2000) perceived more career-related barriers than did male high school students. In fact, another study (Flores & O'Brien, 2002) found that Mexican American adolescent girls who perceived fewer career barriers had higher career aspirations than did Mexican American adolescent girls who perceived more barriers.

Limited research exists with samples of Mexican American students located in a predominantly Mexican community. Research with Mexican American students from a community that is largely represented by their ethnic group may yield unique findings, because they reside in the United States yet may have frequent exposure to the Mexican culture. Given that people of Mexican descent have the lowest educational attainment among Latina/o subgroups, it is imperative for more research to focus on this rapidly growing group that is struggling to achieve academically in the United States. Therefore, the purpose of our study was to investigate the influence of gender, generation level, parents' education level, and perceived educational barriers on the educational aspirations of a sample of Mexican American high school students.



Data were gathered from 186 (53% female, 47% male) Mexican American students attending two predominantly Mexican American public high schools located in a Texas-Mexico border town (94%-95% of students at these schools have Mexican backgrounds). Participants were mostly 10th graders (73%, n - 135), followed by 11th graders (15%, n = 28), 12th graders (8%, n = 15), and 9th graders (4%, n = 8). The average age was 16.14 years (SD = 0.86, range = 15-19). Generation levels varied, with 30 (16%) students identifying as first generation (i.e., Mexican born), 66 (35%) students as second generation (i.e., U.S. born, either parent Mexican born), 25 (13%) students as third generation (i.e., U.S. born, both parents Mexican born, all grandparents Mexican born), 39 (21%) students as fourth generation (i.e., participant and parents U.S. born, at least one grandparent Mexican born), and 20 (11%) students as fifth generation (i.e., participant, parents, and all grandparents U.S. born); 6 (3%) participants did not include generation level. (Percentages do not equal 100% because of rounding.)


Demographic questionnaire. A demographic questionnaire was used to gather information about participants' age, gender, grade level, race, and generation level.

Educational aspirations. Participants responded to one item indicating the highest level of education they hoped to complete. An index of the educational aspirations was taken from the work of Farmer (1985). Responses included 11 possible categories ranging from 1 (some high school) to 11 (doctoral/professional degree).

Parents' education level. Data on the education level of the male and female head of the household were gathered. Response options for parents' education level were categorized into the same categories that were used to assess students' educational aspirations.

Perceived educational barriers. The Perception of Educational Barriers (PEB; McWhirter, Rasheed, & Crothers, 2000) scale consists of 28 items assessing perceived likelihood of encountering various barriers in education. Individuals respond using a 4-point scale ranging from 1 [not at all likely) to 4 [definitely](1), with higher scores indicating a greater likelihood of encountering perceived barriers. Responses are added to calculate a sum scale score. Scores on this measure have yielded good internal consistency estimates with samples of high school students [a = .90 [Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman, & Gallagher, 2003]; a = .89 [McWhirter et al., 2000]). Convergent validity was supported through the correlation of a single item, "I am likely to run into a lot of barriers as I try to achieve my goals after high school," for the PEB scale (McWhirter et al., 2000). Scores for the sample in the present study demonstrated strong internal consistency reliability ([alpha] = .91).


The current study was approved by our university institutional review board, and appropriate informed consent and assent procedures were followed. Parents were asked to contact the second author or the high school if they did not want their child to participate in the study; none contacted either the second author or the school. We solicited students' participation across a variety of science classes (e.g., regular, college preparation, honors) because it was a required course, and students were given time in class to complete the surveys. All students were willing to participate. Furthermore, students who completed the research packets were entered into a raffle for prizes.


Preliminary Analyses

The means, standard deviations, ranges, reliability coefficients, and bivariate correlations for each of the measured variables were computed (see Table 1). The predictor variables of generation level (r= .17, p <.05), father's education level (r = .26, p <.01), mother's education level (r = .31, p <.01), and perceived educational barriers (r = -.19, p <.01) were significantly related to the criterion variable of educational aspirations.

Before conducting the main analyses, we performed an analysis of variance to determine gender differences between the mediator variable and criterion variable, using gender as the independent variable and perceived educational barriers and educational aspirations as the dependent variables. Results indicated no significant gender differences for the criterion variable, F(l, 192) = 0.18, p= .89. Multivariate assumptions (i.e., normality, homoscedasticity, linearity, independence) were examined. The assumption of normality and the assumption of homoscedasticity were violated for the criterion variable of educational aspirations. This variable was transformed using the square root transformation formula, newx = sqrt(k - x), to remedy the violation of normality and the violation of homoscedasticity.

TABLE 1 Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations Between Measured

  Variable       M      SD     1         2       3        4

1. Gender
2. Generation   2.74   1.28  -.01      --
3. Father ed    5.17   3.22  -.25 **   .21 *    --
4. Mother ed    5.48   3.66  -.09      .38 **   .61 **   --
5. Barriers    53.67  14.64  -.03     -.17 *   -.06     -.17 *
6. Aspiration   8.82   2.52   .04      .17 *    .26 **   .31 **

  Variable        5       6

1. Gender
2. Generation
3. Father ed
4. Mother ed
5. Barriers       --
6. Aspiration   -.19 **  --

Note. N= 186. Generation=generation level; father ed = father's
 education level; mother ed = mother's education level; barriers=
perceived educational barriers; aspiration = educational aspirations.

*p <.05. ** p <.01.

Hierarchical Regression Analysis

We conducted a three-step hierarchical regression analysis to predict the educational aspirations of Mexican American high school students. In Step 1, gender and generation level were entered to control for the effects of demographic variables. In Step 2, mother's and father's education levels were entered, because we were interested in the levels' influence on educational aspirations above and beyond that of gender and generation level. Finally, in Step 3, perceived educational barriers was entered to determine its influence on educational aspirations while controling for gender, generation level, and parents' education level. The overall omnibus test indicated that gender, generation level, parents' education level, and perceived educational barriers together accounted for 18% of the variance of educational aspirations, F(5, 124) = 5.33, p=.00. In Step 1, gender and generation level did not account for any significant variance in educational aspirations, [R.sup.2] = .04, F(2, 127) = 2.57, p = .08. In Step 2, mother's and father's education levels accounted for a 10% change of the variance in educational aspirations, [DELTA][R.sup.2] = .10, [DELTA]F(2, 125) = 7.24, p= .00. In Step 3, perceived educational barriers accounted for an additional 4% of the variance in educational aspirations, [DELTA][R.sup.2] = .04, [DELTA]F(1, 124) = 5.75, p = .02. (See Table 2 for hierarchical regression results.)

TABLE 2 Summary of Hierarchical Regression Analysis for Variables
Predicting Educational Aspirations

      Step and variable             B   SE B   [beta]   t

Step 1
  Gender                           .29   .44   .06    0.66
  Generation level                 .38   .89   .19    2.20 *

Step 2
  Gender                           .71   .45   .14    1.60
  Generation level                 .17   .18   .08    0.94
  Mother's education level         .12   .08   .18    1.56
  Father's education level         .16   .09   .21    1.87

Step 3
  Gender                           .57   .44   .11    1.30
  Generation level                 .13   .18   .07    0.76
  Mother's education level         .11   .07   .16    1.46
  Father's education level         .16   .09   .20    1.83
  Perceived educational barriers  -.03   .01  -.20   -2.40 **

Note. N = 186.

* p <.05. ** p <.01.


Using SCCT as the theoretical framework and based on previous findings, we examined the influence of gender, generation level, parents' education level, and perceived educational barriers on the educational aspirations of a sample of Mexican American high school students. Overall, gender, generation level, parents' education level, and perceived educational barriers were significant predictors of educational aspirations. Within the overall model, perceived educational barriers was the only variable that uniquely predicted educational aspirations. Within the SCCT model (Lent et al., 1994, 2000), our results demonstrate the importance of considering person (i.e., generation level), background contextual (i.e., parents' education level), and proximal contextual (i.e., perceived educational barriers) variables on educational aspirations.

The unique influence of gender on educational aspirations was not supported. In their examination of career aspirations for urban high school students, Kenny et al. (2003) also did not find gender differences. Traditionally, Mexican women are socialized to attend to their domestic and family responsibilities, whereas Mexican men are socialized to be the primary breadwinner and pursue a career outside the home. Given these traditional Mexican gender roles, it would be expected that the Mexican American male students in our sample would have higher educational aspirations than would the Mexican American female students. However, this was not the case. A possible explanation for this finding is that students in our sample did not adhere to traditional gender roles. Alternatively, this generation of students may be receiving messages from home and school that both boys and girls are expected to achieve academically.

Although generation level did not uniquely contribute to the overall model, it was uniquely significant in the first model. These findings are consistent with prior research (Zhou, 2001) and demonstrate that Mexican American high school students' generation level positively influenced their educational aspirations. That is, Mexican American students with a longer family history in the United States have greater educational aspirations than do Mexican American students with a more recent immigration history. More time in the United States may imply an increase in familiarity with the U.S. school system. Parents of Mexican American students who have gone through the U.S. school system themselves may be more prepared to help their children navigate the school system than are parents who were educated in Mexico. This firsthand knowledge and experience may help Mexican American students from higher generation levels to set higher educational aspirations.

The influence of mother's and father's education levels on Mexican American students' educational aspirations was also examined and contributed to the overall prediction. This is consistent with previous research (McWhirter et al., 1996) that revealed a significant relation between mother's and father's educational levels and educational aspirations for high school students of color. Considering that most mothers in the present study had less than a high school education, students may view their mothers as an example of what life may be like if they do not pursue higher education, thus increasing their motivation to pursue higher education. Parents' education level did not uniquely predict educational aspirations. Previous research has also found similar results. For instance, Hurtado and Gauvain (1997) concluded that mother's education level did not explain the variance in students' college aspirations. Additionally, a study on Latina college students (Cardoza, 1991) did support the relation between mother's education level and educational aspirations. In contrast, a study on a sample of predominantly Mexican American high school students (Hurtado & Gauvain, 1997) revealed that father's education level significantly explained variance in college aspirations. Although mothers and fathers may play a different role in career development (O'Brien, Friedman, Tipton, & Linn, 2000), our study concluded that neither parent's education level uniquely predicted educational aspirations of Mexican American high school students. Nonetheless, the influence of mother's and father's education levels on these students' educational aspirations should be further tested. Moreover, future research should consider the extent to which students perceive their mother and father to play an important role in their educational aspirations, and communication patterns between parental figures about education as perceived by their children should be examined. Given that little is known about the influence of siblings on Mexican American high school students' educational aspirations, future studies should examine siblings' role modeling on Mexican American high school students' educational development.

The influence of perceptions of educational barriers was a significant, unique predictor of educational aspirations above and beyond the influence of gender, generation level, and parents' educational level. This demonstrates the significant role that perceiving barriers toward education plays on Mexican American students' educational aspirations. This is consistent with the notion that students of color are likely to perceive barriers toward their educational goal attainment (Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001). Results are further supported by Flores and Obrien's (2002) finding that Mexican American adolescent girls who perceived fewer career barriers had higher career aspirations than did Mexican American adolescent girls who perceived more barriers. In essence, regardless of how many generations the students' families had lived in the United States and despite parents' education level (and perhaps familiarity with the challenges of education), students' educational aspirations were negatively influenced by their perceived barriers toward education.

Our study did not examine other dimensions of perception of barriers (i.e., coping and magnitude) described by McWhirter (1997). Simply examining whether Mexican American high school students perceive barriers to their education is not enough. The magnitude to which these students perceive the barriers and their perceived ability to cope with them should also be examined, because these dimensions may provide further knowledge about the role of barriers on students' educational aspirations. Perceived educational barriers that are specific to Mexican American students should be identified and examined so that career counselors and school professionals may successfully intervene to decrease these educational barriers and to increase students' efficacy to positively cope with the barriers that they encounter.

Implications for Career Counselors

On the basis of prior calls (Arbona, 1990; Brown & Lent, 1996) to identify perceived barriers to choice goals, career counselors should examine Mexican American high school students' beliefs as to resources they need and effective strategies to deal with barriers they encounter or expect to encounter in their educational pursuits. Identifying the perceived needs of these students may help school professionals and career counselors to support students' goals and help students develop skills and confidence to achieving their goals. For instance, if a student mentions that lack of self-confidence and lack of support would likely hinder her or him from achieving her or his academic goals, the career counselor will then be able to identify strategies to enhance the student's self-confidence. Perhaps the school counselor can help the student identify strengths to increase her or his self-confidence and match the student with a mentor for academic support. In essence, career practitioners can assist Mexican American high school students with achieving their educational goals by being aware of students' needs and perceived barriers.

Furthermore, practitioners should be cognizant of the possible implications of a Mexican American student's generation level. For instance, if the student is the first person in her or his family to attend school in the United States, career counselors should take this information into consideration and not assume that the student has the necessary information to successfully navigate the U.S. school system. Similarly, practitioners should assess the parents' education level. Wrongly assuming that the mother or father of a Mexican American high school student has navigated through the U.S. public school system may lead practitioners to inaccurately believe that the parents are informed about how the school system works. These parents may not be able to help their children in ways similar to those of Mexican American parents who have indeed graduated from a U.S. public high school or college. In essence, it is critical for school personnel to be aware of the possible influence of culturally related person outputs (e.g., generation level) and contextual factors (e.g., parents' education level) when helping Mexican American students realize their educational goals.


Limitations of the present study should be considered when applying findings in counseling practice or future research with Mexican American high school students. First, the criterion variable of educational aspirations was measured using a single item and may not have fully captured the construct of aspirations. Use of a scale rather than a single item may help researchers learn about the different aspects of students' educational aspirations. Furthermore, other cultural factors may influence students' educational aspirations that were not assessed in the current study. Further studies may include additional cultural measures such as acculturation, ethnic identity, ethnicity-related stress, and cultural values. A less examined construct is that of biculturalism. This construct should be examined when investigating the role of cultural factors on Mexican American high school students' educational aspirations.

In summary, the present study demonstrates the importance of considering cultural, familial, and contextual variables when examining the educational aspirations of Mexican American high school students. By better understanding the perceived barriers toward education, professionals may determine how to best help Mexican American high school students climb up the academic ladder.


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Lizette Ojeda and Lisa Y. Flores, Department of Educational, School, & Counseling Psychology, University of Missouri. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lisa Y. Flores, Department of Educational, School, & Counseling Psychology, 16 Hill Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211 (e-mail:

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Title Annotation:Brief Report
Author:Ojeda, Lizette; Flores, Lisa Y.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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