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The risk of going to college

favicon A few years back, something switched.

Up until then, my students — many of whom were the first in their families to go to college — would enter senior year aspiring to get accepted into a four-year university. They would complete applications, write personal statements, look for scholarships, and fill out financial aid forms. In the Spring, many students would receive good news from UC Santa Barbara or San Jose State or Dominican University. And that was that.

In short, my students believed, as The Atlantic reported today, that “going to college is perhaps the single best financial decision a young adult can make.” Even if college meant a little (or a lot of) debt, getting a four-year degree was the right thing to do.

This is no longer always the case.

With college tuition rising, particularly at state public schools, many of my advisees began openly questioning the value of college. The military became a popular option; three of my 2012 graduates, including the school’s valedictorian, joined the armed forces. (The valedictorian quickly dropped out of the Naval Academy and will attend UC Davis in the Fall.) Others eligible for San Francisco State chose City College instead. A few decided to find a job immediately.

Part of the trend, of course, is based on economics. After all, why wait to make money when you can start making money now? With the unemployment rate fairly high, even for college graduates, that line of thinking makes sense. Better maybe to pursue a two-year technical degree to prepare for a medium-skilled career as an X Ray technician. Four years is a long time for an 18-year-old who just spent an eternity (of the same length) in high school.

Like many teachers, I shun that perspective and believe that college should be the goal for all students. But The Atlantic article included a graph that put things into perspective, that really demonstrated how much of a risk going to college is, particularly if you’re not wealthy.


Is this what my students have been telling me — that if they’re not completely sure they’ll graduate, that if they lack confidence in their academic skills, that if they think college might be too much for them, then maybe they shouldn’t take the financial risk?

For many people, a graph like that may lead to the conclusion that maybe college is not meant for everyone. I usually hear it like this: “Is it right for us to tell them that the only way to achieve happiness is by earning a bachelor’s degree? I mean, what if they don’t graduate and are saddled with debt?”

Here’s a corollary: “Just because I have a college degree, is it my place to demand it of someone else?”

The answer to both of those questions is undeniably yes — despite all the risks. But The Atlantic article also reminds us that we must provide our students, particularly our first-generation college students, a full understanding of what college looks like, of what it entails. favicon

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