As March begins, so does the college decision season. Anxieties and anticipation are mounting for the results, whether or not they are rejections or acceptances. It’s an exhilarating time for high school seniors, who are nearing a rather major fork in the road (since with new education opportunities comes adulthood and newfound independence). However, there is one important thing that we must acknowledge.
College isn’t destiny. College isn’t the endgame, and it shouldn’t be. Where you end up going and what you do there does not irreversibly determine the course of your life, though it becomes easy to think that way in the short-term, especially after attending high school for four years.
Often, the high school experience becomes defined by what kind of colleges students are aiming to go to, if they choose to apply. Consequently, many students, myself included, might not be able to enjoy our limited time in high school to the fullest because they are always being pushed to think about the next step. In the case of seniors, the next big step is usually a four-year university – and often, a big-name school like an Ivy League.
The way the education system is set up, and society at large, forces young people into the idea that if they aren’t working or know exactly what they want to do yet, then they are automatically going to be less successful than someone else who might have an idea already. Worse, they might be considered lesser as an individual alone. In the college application process, students are required to have their lives and merits listed out in an itemized list on a neat resume, or crammed into a 650-word essay. According to the Pew Research Center, anxiety and depression are among the rise in many young high school students, in part due to the amount of academic pressures they face, in order to follow through on post-graduation plans of attending university.
Part of the reason why college is so revered and valued among students is because our society strongly emphasizes the benefits of higher education, whether it’s in finding future careers or just generally having awareness of what factors influence the world around us. Additionally, university is, in a way, emblematic of ultimate freedom. It is where students can explore their passions, unhindered by the limitations of high school.
However, the reality is that attending university comes at a high price. With skyrocketing tuition prices, financial burdens, and student-loan debts, it is becoming increasingly difficult for students, particularly those from lower income families, to fully experience a quality college education. Some students are often forced to choose between going to school or going to work, just to be able to afford their education and even basic necessities, like food. This prevents students from being fully invested in their academic pursuits – which could be argued is the point of attending university in the first place – and without being able to focus on their schools, students may also find more difficulty finding internships and jobs. Additionally, balancing financial, academic, and social pressures becomes a heavy burden on students’ mental health.
Is it destiny, then, for young people to give up parts of themselves, passions, and academic careers, just to afford college?
University cannot stay as our end goal, because what happens once we get there? What happens when we do eventually burn out? As someone on the cusp of adulthood, this is a rather hard idea to internalize, having grown up in an environment that so heavily emphasized education and constant upward mobility. Young people need time to cultivate their minds, passions, and love for learning. This way, students can have control over how they discover what they want to do in life. These kinds of foundations also help to form open mindsets and a genuine desire for self-improvement, and they matter just as much as the next step of education because they are values that will remain with people, long after they graduate.
An option many high school seniors choose is to go to a community college first, rather than immediately attending a four-year university. While there is a stigma attached to community colleges, one that unfairly generalizes its students as unsuccessful or failures for starting out there, attending community colleges is actually a rather economically wise option. And community college isn’t a lazy, cop-out version of a four-year university: students there have the opportunity to better explore their interests without the full extent of financial burdens of a university, while also having the option to transfer out. They have the transition time to explore their interests as well as adulthood.
The point is that students shouldn’t feel so pressured into single-mindedly pursuing a four-year college degree, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed about their school choices. Whatever school students decide to attend and why – perhaps because of affordability, academic passions, or convenience – does not quantify their worth as an individual. Going to a university that doesn’t have a big name or top ranking, attending a community college, or choosing not to go to college at all, does not mark students as failures.
For those who have the ability and do decide to attend college, it is important to realize that there are thousands of other things that students do, every day, that matter. We are more than where we go to school. It’s about time we were taught that as well.
Featured image by Malcom Garret from Pexels