John: With college application season kicking in to full speed, Wes and I are dedicating this column to choosing colleges. If you're a senior, colleges are probably pressuring you to apply early-decision, in which the university provides a quick admission verdict in exchange for your promise not to apply anywhere else if admitted. In my opinion, this discriminates against low-income students who need to be able to compare financial aid offers in the spring. But even if you're applying for regular admission, it's best to begin the process as soon as possible to allow for last-minute crises.
While the average wage of a college graduate is nearly double that of nongrads, where you go to college will have far less of an impact than how you perform in school. A study comparing 1976 Ivy League graduates to those who were accepted to an Ivy League, but then chose to attend a less prestigious school, found that Ivy League graduates had the same median income 20 years after graduation. Half the members of the U.S. Senate attended public colleges, including Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts (both K-State grads).
There is no "wrong" college to attend, and what is important for one student may not be significant for another. While I'll weigh ROTC programs heavily in choosing my college, others might put more emphasis on sports, social atmosphere or the reputation of a department to which they are interested in applying.
Cost is obviously a front-burner issue for many parents, but if you're interested in an expensive school, apply anyway. In the spring you will learn how much financial aid you are eligible for, and then you can compare price tags. Consider also location and size. While some students may yearn to enjoy the independence at a faraway university, other prefer to swing by their parents' home on short notice.
Once you decide what is important in a college, it's time for research. Investigate colleges with a variety of sizes, cultures, locations and admission standards, and try to imagine how you would feel attending these colleges. Meanwhile, invest time in visiting nearby colleges, even those you are not interested in, to get a feel for different university styles. Finally, choose four to six schools you would most like to attend and get those applications rolling!
Wes: I'm with John all the way. However, I'd like to back up and address a more fundamental issue - whether to go to college or not. While there's probably some form of post-high school education for everyone, college may not be it. One of the most common and unfortunate situations I see in my practice is young people who did not really think through the choice to go to college, and/or parents who pressured them to go. Sometimes this works out in spite of the obvious peril of such pressure.
Often it does not.
It might seem that, if given a choice, most late teens would rather go to school than toil away at the various food service/construction/manufacturing/retail/etc., jobs available to them. However, that point is often realized only after they've done just that. There's something to be said for waiting a year if you really don't believe you're ready to take the big plunge John has laid out above.
But I'm not a big fan of spending that year underemployed, living off the folks, partying hard and sleeping in. In fact, I've previously suggested parents take strict measures for motionless grads. However, if teens spend a year or two out of high school, working, putting back a little money, having some fun and growing up, I think they'll be miles ahead of the reluctant, unhappy freshmen counting the days until they bomb out. That said, I also see a fair number of "nontraditional" or "returning" students who wish they had not taken this road. College can be a lot tougher when you have a family, full-time work and financial concerns.
Before blowing off school completely, the other thing to consider is whether trade school, junior college, military service or vocational-technical school is more your speed. I've seen many young people go to cosmetology or auto repair schools, then use their increased earning power to finance further study. When families are disappointed in this decision, I encourage them to reconsider. Nearly any post-secondary learning is useful, and the starting wages for an auto mechanic are more than decent. The same is true for computer systems, networking and information technology.
As John points out, a high school diploma will offer little edge down the road of life, except as it allows you to move on to the next classroom. We're all different, and there are scores of different education paths open to young adults. Whether you hit the books again three months after graduation, or wait a year or two, I encourage you to keep further learning in your plan. It's one of the best investments of time and money you'll make. We'll revisit this issue later in the year as seniors are beginning to make some final decisions about schools.
Next week: A recent online chatter asks whether 2006 families are too busy for the old-fashioned family dinner. The issue goes way beyond food.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.