In the mad dash of the holiday season, we too often miss the ball of anxiety that is high school seniors as they await college admission decisions. Every year, the complexities of this process get ever more complex, as now college applicants apply for upwards of five schools each. So as we think about the New Year's resolutions we know we will not keep, put away our holiday decorations and get back to the swing of daily life, we should remember the stressed out high schoolers who are thinking of their tenuous future.
We too often see their stress through the lens of "choice,": which college they will get into and which one will accept them. Their anxiety is more and more about how to pay for it. Every year, tens of thousands of students with limited means head for college. This may not be new, but the cost of college has risen so much in a generation; and the economy changes since 2008 have made this an exponentially bigger issue. A college education is now one of the most expensive things a family will "buy." Gone are the days when families could use home equity loans, or increasingly needs-blind policies, to stretch for tuition. Colleges in the "good old days" increased aid through "discounting" tuition, but they have been trying to scale back on that recently.
Today's students of limited means don't have the guides, networks or support, and they sometimes go to colleges they can't afford, where they struggle, fail and leave (with debt). If they do manage to graduate, their debt is so large that it limits their future prospects.
Their numbers are hidden within the six year graduation and retention rates of colleges, and their voices are silent. Colleges and universities all mean well in accepting these students. They provide aid and see what they are doing as providing access and adding value. But, increasingly, these students are asked to bridge greater and greater gaps between aid and tuition, and the only way they can do so is through loans.
Let's see the anxiety not as choice, but as economic reality. First, more and more high school students don't make it to graduation, and for some who do, college is not a viable economic choice. And, increasingly, college students are older than 18 to 22 years old, and more of them are first generation. More students transfer between colleges. And, the vast majority of students who go to college attend community colleges, regional public institutions or, more seemingly, affordable, small, private colleges. They do so, frankly, because that is all they can afford.
The problem with this is that many of these students don't feel good about where they go. Guidance counselors, students and their families don't see these schools as strong institutions. They sense that they have "settled." And one reason for their unease is the media coverage of higher education itself. Maybe what these schools do is not sexy. These schools don't get the big grants, they don't have the extensive advertising campaigns or huge sports franchises, or extensive public relations shops. They might not hire star faculty who are on TV either. And, maybe most of the media who cover higher education come from more "highly selective" colleges, and either don't understand these schools or don't value them. So these schools remain hidden, and frankly, undervalued. What these schools do is teach effectively and well. Maybe that is simply too mundane to garner attention. Maybe they are too humble and because of this, they remain on the so-called "safety school" list -- never a top choice.
Yet, rankings and data reveal these student-friendly colleges are not just good deals, but that they provide a solid and often superior education. Selecting a college is a personal choice and involves a "fit." Where will the student be most comfortable, what atmosphere will enable them to grow and, honestly, what can families afford. These affordable colleges offer a strong faculty, and a mission that is driven to serve these students, which evidence shows leads to greater student success. They open up possibilities. Because the students who attend these colleges are not in nearly as much debt, they can choose majors based on dreams, rather than solely on the perceived short-term financial gains of certain majors. Also, as more and more students need to go to graduate school (the M.A. is the old B.A., after all) these students, who carry smaller debt, have more options.
These schools, the unsung heroes of higher education, provide the vast majority of skilled worker for our future. Their future success is ours. So, how about this as a slightly late New Year's resolution: Let's not diminish what these schools and their students do; let's find ways to celebrate them, and let's, as a nation, take pride in these regional gems who do so much to help transform our society. And, most importantly, let's make the students who attend these schools feel the pride their deserve.
Richard Greenwald, Executive Dean of St. Joseph's College, Brooklyn, NY. His next book is entitled The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works (Bloomsbury Books).
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