In their quest for acceptance, college applicants often fail to see the bigger picture. They obsess over “getting in,” while ignoring current realities about the value and role of an undergraduate education. These realities should play a central, rather than ancillary, part in the college choice process because, when considered, they can help students circumvent the financial hazards and career dissatisfaction that currently plague so many American adults. Before deciding on a college and course of study, students (and their parents) need to account for the following truths:
1) A college degree, while necessary, is no longer sufficient for entry into a “college-level” job. In today’s economy, skills and/or relevant experience matter as much or more than a diploma, primarily because a diploma doesn’t mean what it used to. Although demand for college-level work has grown, many new degree-holders have failed to acquire college-level skills, resulting in widespread unemployment and underemployment among recent graduates. For example, today’s college grads are more likely to work as cashiers or waiters than as engineers. In light of these trends, it is essential that today’s college applicants plan for more than admission, and use the admissions process to explore the academic programs that lead to learning and distinction, not just a degree.
2) A graduate degree is required for entry into many of the most sought after professions. This fact should compel applicants to adopt a long-term view and think strategically about where and how they pursue a college education. For instance, students with ambitions to enter law or medicine should prioritize undergraduate affordability and performance over prestige, given the costs of a professional degree and given the secondary role that college brand plays (to grades and test scores) in the graduate admissions process. Aspiring doctors and lawyers, along with would-be professors and scientists, should also realize that graduate credentials, not undergraduate name, will determine their job prospects.
3) College is more expensive now than ever before. Rising college costs have left many graduates (and dropouts) with excessive loan burden and little opportunity to pay down debts. Their hardships are often attributed to decisions made (or not made) during the admissions process. For example, they choose colleges or academic programs that offer limited returns; do not adequately research financial aid opportunities; and/or do not consider their career plans before shelling out thousands of dollars for a postsecondary education (Do you really need to attend a private college if you want to become a social worker? How about a teacher?). Many wish they would have done things differently, and their regrets should serve to remind current applicants that their college choices have long-term consequences.
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Therefore, we encourage students to “begin with the end in mind.” Of course, few can plan their entire young adulthood from start to finish, but that’s ok. Even if you are undecided about your major or career path, there are still realities that can be considered. You may want to become a lawyer; you may want to start a landscaping business. Either way, it would certainly be nice to have the choice.
College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.