As parents, we are always viewing the lives of our children as a succession of stepping stones or building blocks. We’ve been told that we should play our kids music when they are babies so that they get a head start on mental development. We’re told that we need to enroll them in the best pre-schools, to give them a head start on education. We’re told that we need to push them harder throughout elementary school so that they can get into academically “talented and gifted” programs. We’re told that we need to make sure our kids are taking accelerated courses and SAT and ACT prep courses in high school so that they can get good grades, score high on standardized tests, and get into the “right college.” We’re even told that our kids need to fill their schedules with extracurricular activities, volunteer hours, special clubs, and societies, and more—not because our kids are passionate about those things, but because this stuff looks good on college applications.
It used to be that a college degree was a virtual guarantee of a good career. The common path was to work hard in college, graduate with good grades, score well on the ACT and SAT, and attend a reputed four-year university. Students that followed this path were, overall, well-prepared to enter the job market and start making a living.
A high school graduation is a significant milestone in many lives, and it often coincides with a young person beginning the final transition into adulthood. In the past, what that meant differed for many people. Today, however, the predominant path involves immediate entrance into college. Many high school students spend their senior years in a chaotic rush of college and scholarship applications, after all. Despite the growing real cost of studying in a university, attendance rates continue to increase. The explanation often goes that earning a degree ostensibly makes one more valuable as an employee, so the tuition, fees, and other associated costs are a justifiable expense.
Check in with a high school senior early in the school year, and you’ll find many of them doing two things: fretting about college decisions, and worrying over scholarship applications. Many students receive heavy encouragement to apply for as many scholarships as possible — why is that? The reality is that rising tuition and material costs associated with college continue to increase the financial hurdles facing students. The conventional wisdom, though, is that a college degree is worth the effort and the cash. Is that true? Do the end results justify the current price tags, or is the cost of college too high when compared with its potential benefits? A careful look at the facts shows that circumstances profoundly influence the answer.
Over the years, college has evolved from a choice made by some to an expectation for nearly everyone. At high school graduations, schools will even read off information about the colleges that students are planning to attend. Going to college has become the societal norm, to the point where it is almost strange, unwise, and often even unacceptable to decide against higher education.