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Columbia Inspired

College and Culture

Aug 18, 2023 10:22AM ● By Jasmine Sonpar

In October of my junior year, all the seniors were groaning about college applications. Everyone was rushing, confused about the CSS Profile, FAFSA, and other forms–supplements, merit scholarships–it all seemed like an unconquerable mountain.

I always heard the same thing, “Don’t procrastinate, get it done early.” I took that to heart and began the application process over the summer before my senior year. I had started months before, and yet I still felt behind. There was something wrong. Was I really behind? 

We live in a state ranked highly in its quality of education. I grew up in Howard County where there is a great emphasis on academic success, which creates pressure. This pressure pushes kids to succeed, but it also warps the idea of what makes a person great. 

 As freshmen, students are prepared for college. It starts with smaller comments like, “Your grades for all four years are seen by admission offices, pay attention.” That warning starts the pressure for achievement and a good portion of the student body aims for the highest GPA (grade point average) possible. 

Freshmen and sophomores who have this mentality can make decisions that greatly increase their academic load. For example, over the pandemic, when the virtual schedule allowed for two extra classes, a lot of students doubled up on math to “get ahead.” 

At the end of Junior year and the beginning of Senior year, students are usually subjected to a presentation given by our counselors about life after high school. The few slides about community college or trade school feel like an afterthought. The counselors are tasked with informing us of our options. They try their best, but it is always, “If you don’t want to go to college, come see us.” The information about other options isn’t explained in ways that make it feel special, exciting, or desirable.

In the presentation I watched, only three out of thirty slides discussed options other than college: gap year, trade school, community college, and armed forces. Those three slides used brief bullet points and only described the options, not how to obtain them.  

Is this a bad thing? As a student who just went through the application process, yes. While it is good to have a certain level of academic pressure, the environment I’ve experienced presents only one solution to success, but it just isn’t the right answer for everyone. 

The third year of high school is the most stressful. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds spend the entire year rushing to boost their GPA and packing their resumes for college applications. Only a few students stop to think about a gap year, trade school, or securing an internship to improve job opportunities. Students know trade school and gap years exist. That isn’t the issue, it's about the stereotype around making that decision: laziness, academic inadequacy, lack of intelligence and stunting your career.

This bias is amplified in our area. The common consensus is that college is the only viable option, and one reason is that it is the most popular; 66.2% of all 2020 High School American graduates attended a four-year college. In Howard County, that percentage was 69.4% in 2020.

In Howard County, when someone says they are applying for community college or opting out of university and going straight to work, the typical reaction in my experience is they are asked “why” or told, “What a waste of potential.” Children observe this response and incorporate it into their decision on which path to take. 

A “traditional” college experience is four years long; more than half of all those enrolled have student debt. In comparison, vocational schooling is typically a two-year process at a third of the cost. With respect to salary, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the starting wage for someone with a bachelor’s is about $50,651 while qualified electricians average $55,590 annually. On the whole, there seems to be no compensatory disadvantage to not enrolling in university which is done in half the time. 

The simple truth is that four more years of schooling after twelve years of schooling isn’t for everyone. That is why we have locksmiths, electricians, entrepreneurs, and other jobs with interesting people–we cannot all fit the same mold. 

This problem is societal. The solution isn’t easy or quick, but it is there. Start at the school level. Have educators provide a more distributed focus on the different options, explaining the why and how instead of just the what. Other options include continuing to discuss programs provided in community college and stressing how those can ease financial burdens. Everyone can recognize that there are more, equally beneficial, options beyond spending tens of thousands of dollars on a four-year college. When someone talks about going to community college, trade school, or going directly to work, if you can hold back the reflex to judge, then you can be a part of the solution.

Sources (I can cite them if you would like):$file/01%2027%202022%20Postsecondary%20Educational%20Outcomes%20for%20Graduates%20of%20HCPSS%20BR.pdf
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