Deciding To Go To College

By Rajkamal Rao  

Many books have been written about why US high school students should consider going to college.  The US government, by far, has been the biggest promoter of this idea.  The GI Bill, the various federal loan programs launched to help students pay for college and indeed, the establishment of the Department of Education as a cabinet agency were all major steps by the government to help increase college enrollment.  

Going to college is one of the most meaningful decisions you will make in your life.  First, you need to research which college to go to and what you will study.  Next, you need to figure out how you pay for college.  And lastly, you need to market yourself in your application and stand out so that you are likely to be offered admission by the colleges you chose.

The trouble is that through the day you graduate from high school, you have never had to make such life-changing decisions and act on them.  The US K-12 education has been designed to remove key education decisions from parents and children.  The only major decision that parents make about the education of their children is where to live.  From that point on, a set of unbending, bureaucratic process takes over.

Your elementary school is decided by your public school district solely using an attendance zone, right down to street level maps showing well-defined borders.  Going to school in the US is not only a right but a duty, mandated by state and federal law.  Admission to school is guaranteed and in most cases, a school bus takes you to and from school.  Everything in school is well choreographed by teachers and the administration - and as long as you follow instructions and put in good effort, you should do fairly well in school.  Elementary schools feed to middle schools, which feed to high schools.  If your parents were to maintain the same residence, the whole process is seamless - you simply move from one school to another according to your home’s zip code. 

What you study in school is also largely decided for you.  Through upper middle school, the regimen is fairly standard in that everyone studies the same topics, is tested on the same material and is graded in a similar manner.  There are exceptions, of course.  Gifted and talented students are challenged with more difficult curricula.  In high school, students can choose electives - subjects that they like to focus on rather than take topics they are not good at.

The K-12 school deal that our society makes with children is simple:   Follow our factory-based, one-size-fits-all approach and you don’t have to pay a dime to earn a high school diploma.  Sure, families pay real estate taxes most of which go to funding public schools, but these taxes are not elastic.  That is, families don’t pay more in real estate taxes if the household has more children.  Or families don’t stop paying real estate taxes when their children leave home after high school graduation.

College, however, is a completely different proposition.  All of a sudden, there seem to be so many choices and decisions to make.  Attendance zones and zip codes are meaningless.  Not only can a student decide to study in another part of the state, he/she can go across the country or even to another country to pursue post-secondary education.   And then, there’s the all-important decision about what to study.  No longer is it enough to simply check in with your guidance counselor once a year and follow a structured schedule of classes.  It is important that you know who you are and what your interests are so that you can study further in those fields.

Luckily, college-bound students in the US find that they have a lot of support.  US middle schools begin introducing the idea of college through seminars and other information sessions.  Most high school websites have dedicated sections devoted to college and the admissions process.  The high school guidance counselor is by far the most important professional that students can interact with to ask questions and get unbiased answers in a familiar setting.  Counselors spot gifted and talented students and encourage them to build their brand by getting them to participate in extra-curricular or other extra-academic activities.  High schools host “College Fairs” by inviting colleges and universities to meet with parents and students under the same roof, discussing admissions, financial aid and the benefits of college.  Many school districts offer college prep tools and even subsidize costs of the various exams that students need to get through - such as PSATs, SATs, ACTs and AP exams. 

All of this support is, however, heavily focused on steps 2 and 3 of the college decision: how to finance your college and how you complete your application for success.  There is not a whole lot of institutional support about the all-important step 1: Researching options to identify a college that best meets your needs.  

As we said before, which location and region you choose, the college you select, what you study, how long you take to graduate, how you limit costs (and borrowing), what career you pursue, whether or not you get an internship, which industry you choose to work in, how soon you can get a meaningful job after graduation - each can determine if going to college is worth it. 

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