A recent article in the New York Times relates the story of a C+ high school student who went to college out of a lack of other ideas, and flourished because of it. The benefits of a college education are oft quoted in our education system. Between the higher earnings and lower rates of unemployment that college graduates enjoy versus high school graduates, many educators promote the college plan to every student, referring to college prospects early and often. Yet only 2/3rds of students attend college right after graduating high school. Many students decide that college is not the best path for them because they did not perform well in high school or cannot afford college tuition.
While it is easy to understand that a high-performing student will do well in college and enjoy the benefits of a degree, marginal students (students with less-than-ideal high school performance) may have a more difficult time completing college, and thus they take on the risk of incurring many semesters’ worth of student loans before dropping out. These unfortunate few find themselves swamped in debt without a degree and the benefits it brings.
College May Be Easier Than High School
For many students that struggle through high school, college seems daunting, even impossible. After all, a student that barely manages passing grades in high school can’t survive in the next level of education, can they? Well, evidence shows they can. Despite conventional wisdom that our society favors the highest performers in any group, researchers have found that those least likely to go to college are actually the people who benefit the most from a college education. In part, this is because the resources available to all college students, such as academic advising, free writing help, and faculty office hours, are more likely to be pursued by students who recognize that they need additional help.
Additionally, whereas high school has a common required curriculum, with only one or two classes per semester that are left as electives for students, college is designed almost completely around student interest. Except for a few core classes, students are able to choose which subjects that want to study. At some universities, those core classes will have enough variability that anyone can find a particular course that fits their academic needs and interests. For example, a student that struggled in high school mathematics can pursue a liberal arts or humanity degree, which may require as few as two math courses. Student can then pick math classes specifically built for those whose skills lie elsewhere. “College Math for Liberal Arts Majors” focuses on the evolution of mathematics more so than actual numbers work, and students can learn about how different ancient cultures have represented numbers. This freedom of choice allows students to ensure that their coursework will be more achievable and more interesting than the lock-step coursework of most high schools. This means some students may have an easier time earning passing grades in higher education.
Another benefit to college over other post high school routes would be the benefit to one’s social standing. A student’s presence on campus for four years and their participation in classes and extracurricular activities has a tremendous impact on their social network, which can then promote other aspects of their lives. The college application process actively groups together people of similar age and interest (students will only apply to schools that interest them, and usually make decisions based on majors offered, location, size, etc.). Then, as students pick their classes, they incidentally put themselves in close proximity to people who share their interests.
Social networking, both in person and online, is fostered in the college atmosphere. These social connections are related to stronger psychological well-being, and also provide opportunity for future growth, as student relationships may develop into work relationships. Alternatively, individuals who choose not to go to college are likely to stay in the same social group, as they rarely leave the area that they went to high school in.
All of this is not to say that students should go to college just to go to college. It is important to keep priorities straight: college is to develop oneself, not to check boxes off of a checklist. Entering college out of a sense of duty could have students choosing to go to colleges that are less rigorous than the student could handle. Students who intentionally go to less selective and less rigorous schools than they are capable of succeeding in are more likely to drop out, finding themselves with all of the student loan debt and no degree to show for it. Studies have shown that despite common complaints, people do feel better when they are challenged, so choosing an easier college may be counter-productive to one’s overall well-being.
Of course, students don’t have to attend college straight out of high school. Returning students – people who work for a few years after high school before starting college – are the fastest growing college demographic. In fact, this route has some distinct advantages. Not all students know what they want to study right away, and end up having to transfer schools in order to pursue their ideal major field of study. By spending a few years in the work force, returning students are more likely to have a plan for what they want to do, and will be able to apply schools that fit that plan. Additionally, a few years in the workforce teaches fiscal responsibility and independence, so returning students are more likely to handle student loans in an efficient manner. Individuals that plan on returning to education could further take advantage of their time working by building up savings to offset tuition.
High school educators are quick to point students in the direction of college. The benefits certainly outweigh the costs, even for students that struggled in high school. Fear over further academic inferiority should not hold back these students from reaching their full potential. Because college is very flexible and tailored to each student’s interests, it can even be less stressful than the forced curriculum of high school. If students are overly anxious about stepping into the realm of higher education, it may be better to apply a few years after high school, allowing time to develop a clear path of study and career, while simultaneously setting up their finances for the tuition rates. Regardless of how intimidating it may seem, secondary education continues to be very practical and attainable.