Pathway Choices: College

High school students and their parents are so obsessed with the goal of college acceptance that few stop to think about the current realities of college or whether it is the right fit.  While some people benefit from learning in classrooms with textbooks and discussions, others learn best from hands-on experience. Both are equally valuable and the difference merely reflects individual learning styles and interests. Historically, a degree held more earning potential than industry-specific knowledge and experience. However, as new options emerge to challenge this singular pathway to success, it is critical that we educate ourselves about what it takes to get a degree and spend time evaluating whether the cost, emotional investment and time, is the correct pathway.

This new reality was highlighted during the testimony of Anthony Carnevale, Director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, before a US Senate Committee on January 30, 2018:

We now live in an economy where there is at least a 5:1 ratio between the highest and lowest paid fields of study at every degree and certificate level. Because of differences in field of study, 40% of BA holders earn more than the average graduate degree holder, 30% percent of AA holders earn more than the average BA holder, and many one-year certificate holders earn more than many AA and BA holders.

College can be a fulfilling experience for many students, complete with personal growth and lifelong friendships. The student who is mature, focused and loves learning in academic settings is an ideal candidate. Self-initiative is key as students must navigate the complexity of signing up for classes and coordinating with professors. Managing finances, doing laundry, balancing social/academic schedules and forward planning for on-time graduation are all required of the successful student. College is also the pathway choice for those wishing to pursue a professional degree in areas like medicine, engineering, business or law.

But, college can be emotionally and financially costly for students who are unprepared to live outside of their parents’ home. For many, the focus on academic and extracurricular achievements during their primary school years has left little time to learn critical life skills. Those who are not self-sufficient or have not learned to deal with daily demands and challenges will likely find college overwhelming.

Campus mental health centers around the country are swamped with students struggling with mental health issues, particularly anxiety. During the past five years, students seeking services have significantly outpaced the growth in enrollment. A 2015 study by American College Health Association (ACHA), found that 57% of students felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year.

The cost of college may, in and of itself, determine the pathway choice available for many students. It is an extremely large investment with no guarantee of a return. Keep in mind that it takes longer than four years for the majority of students to earn their degree so the extra time cost has to be considered for loans, interest payments, and tuition.

Even at state colleges where tuition is $10,000 per year and room/board/books is $10,000 per year, the basic cost is $80,000 for four years. Factoring in interest and extra years of study could easily push this number well over $100,000.  Some private colleges are even more exorbitant with tuition/board costs that can run $60,000-$75,000 per year ($240,000-$300,000 for four years) before interest costs. With an average starting salary for college graduates of $50,000/year, it is no wonder so many are burdened with huge debt and live at home with their parents!

In order to prepare our children for college, my husband and I instituted several guidelines. We consider the college investment to be a two-way street and required our daughters to “have skin in the game”.  First, if they want to go, they must get themselves into college by completing all the applications and essays without outside help. Their ability to do this is good training for once they get to college and have to navigate the numerous forms and submittals to register for classes and sign up for activities. It is also a wonderful exercise in self-efficacy. They learn a lot about themselves in the process. Once they get to college, they are there on a year-to-year basis, depending on their conduct and ability to balance freedom and schoolwork. While we don’t focus on grades during their K – 12 school years, they must maintain a 3.0 GPA in order for us to continue our investment. It tells us that they are invested as well. Lastly, they must graduate in four years.

Graduating in four years is no easy feat. As stated above, most students don’t. One of the least considered and most valuable factors to look at when choosing a college is their four-year graduation rate.

Given that 30% of students drop out freshman year, considering a “Gap Year” may be helpful. A break can be extremely beneficial for those who are suffering burnout. Ninety percent of students taking a gap year return to college after the year. Students taking a break perform better than their peers and tend to have a stronger sense of purpose.  Additionally, this time can be used to explore different fields they may be interested in though short, inexpensive courses offered by websites like Coursera or edX or through apprenticeships. This is a lot less costly than figuring out they don’t like the field after completing their degree. Even some colleges are recognizing the benefits and starting to offer their own gap or “bridge” programs.  

Finally, new college structures are emerging that can shorten the time and reduce the cost of pursuing a degree. One example is Western Governors University, which was established by 19 Governors in 1997. In addition to online learning, one of their distinguishing characteristics is their “use of competencies rather than seat time as the measure of outcomes”.  Their graduates report higher levels of employment and engagement than the national average. Another example is the new “hybrid” college such as Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America Program. They are stepping in to answer the need to combine real life work and a college degree through community partnerships.

It’s going to be exciting to see what happens with colleges in the next decade. Both Harvard’s Todd Rose and edX’s Anant Agarwal envision the future with “stackable credentials”.  Rather than static four-year degrees, they see students being able to create their own personal playlists of credentials based on interests and the needs of the marketplace. “Education in five to ten years will become modular, will become omnichannel, and will become lifelong,” according to Agarwal.

At this moment, college remains our culture’s right of passage into the professional world. It still represents a valuable determinant for many employers and it is a requirement for many fields of study.  However, the college choice should be compared to other, equally viable pathways to ensure that it meets the unique needs and circumstances of individual students. Considering the rising costs of higher education, the more competitive job market, and campus mental health concerns, it is as important as ever for college to be a sound investment choice.

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