FOR thousands of Washington high-school seniors nearing graduation day, the topic of college permeates our day-to-day conversations with friends, family and teachers. “Where are you going next year?” has replaced “Where are you applying?” or “Where have you been accepted?” as the most common and annoying questions asked.
Like many high-school seniors, I understand why going to college is the best next step. The difference between a $60,000-per-year mechanical-engineering job and a $28,000-per-year construction job is clear.
It’s disappointing how many mixed messages and challenges grown-ups present to high-schoolers who are facing the transition to college. Here are some of them:
• “College isn’t for everybody.”
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Technically, this may be true. But what most high-school students know is that college is for practically everybody and saying that it’s not is one of the main ways grown-ups discourage students from going to college.
When students in tough academic or financial situations hear “College isn’t for everybody,” too many interpret that as “College isn’t for me.” There is such a variety of colleges, ranging from community colleges to the Ivys, and so many different majors, that clearly something exists for everyone.
My question is: Who are the students that college is not for? Or, is this statement really just a code for saying “College is actually only for students coming from families who are already pretty successful”?
According to Tom Mortensen in Postsecondary Education Opportunities (2009), families that fall in the lower two income quartiles tend to have very low percentages of kids receiving bachelor’s degrees (as of 2007, 8.3 percent in the lowest quartile and 17 percent in the second lowest), but the percentages in the upper two quartiles are much higher (36 percent in the second highest and 82 percent in the highest) and increasing.
• “You need to apply for college.”
This statement may very well be the biggest oversimplification in all of education. But for too many students, it is the only instruction they’ll receive when starting their college search. In order for a student to successfully determine schools they’d like to attend, some help is needed.
If the application process were incorporated into a school’s curriculum, students would receive assistance from their teachers, who are probably their best resources. This would also allow for the best help when it came time to write college application essays.
Counselors and other administrators would do well to implement curriculum-friendly aspects of college applications.
• “This is going to be very expensive.”
It is expensive. Too expensive. Colleges are funded through a combination of the price paid to attend and, for public colleges, money provided by the state.
In recent years, the amount of state support colleges receive has dropped off, largely because of the economic recession. This has been replaced by higher tuition. The cost to attend college has gone up because the state funding went down.
These increases have negative effects. Students in low-income families often find themselves in a tug of war. They could attend college and financially jeopardize their family, or they could start working out of high school and help their family, but risk their own future.
Other students who are not tight on money may find their parents complaining about the investment they’d be making toward college. This subtle, yet powerful remark, leads some students to feel guilty about the cost to their parents, and therefore they opt out of college.
Tuition prices should be made a nonissue in the choice to attend college. Either financial aid should be increased, tuition lowered, or both.
Parents, teachers and policy leaders must find a way to change the message they are sending us. The grown-ups need to do much more to make it possible for all high school students to take what we know is the next best step.
Charlie Fridley is a high-school senior at Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle. Next year he will attend The College of Idaho.