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The Things We Didn't Know

I graduated from high school in the spring of 2005. In the months prior to commencement, I applied to five universities, got accepted at three, rejected at two, and ultimately transferred to and will graduate from a college I never imagined attending. I can't help but feel like I approached the undergrad admission process all wrong. And of this is on top of the fact that I went to a private high school that employed a half dozen "college counselors" whose sole job was to ensure that students got into the universities that were worth getting into. At least that's what we were lead to believe.

Knowing what I do now, I wish there were a few things I had considered back then.

Don't plan for the best
In 2005 the economy was cruising along just fine. Unemployment wasn't much of a concern. The toughest decision for most college grads was which of multiple job offers to accept. It was assumed, for the most part, that the same environment would exist by the time it was my class's turn to graduate from college. Counselors told us go to college, work hard and have a good time; the good life would be waiting once we finished. The reality is that many of my peers graduated into unemployment last year. For some of them it took the entirety of the summer or longer to receive a single offer. It's hard to deny that the environment was not the best. Every indication leads me to believe the same will occur this May.

Location matters
Every year US News & World Report releases their rankings of "best colleges". When I was a senior in high school, people memorized this list; they could tell you where any school landed. College counselors encouraged us to shoot for the top. What almost no one told us was to think about colleges geographically. Sure, many teenagers want to go to college "far away from home" to get away from their parents or live in a warmer climate; but that's more of an "anywhere but here" approach than anything else. Colleges in urban centers inherently offer access to now crucial internships at companies in those cities, regardless of how they shake out on the ranking lists. Colleges in rural areas and some suburbs simply do not, leaving their students to duke it out for overly competitive summer internships. As a college senior, it's frustrating to hear corporate recruiters admit that they any shred resume with an out-of-town address on it. Many college graduates look forward to relocating, often to a big city; but if you aren't already in one, you're not doing yourself any favors.

You have to pay back the loans
This point seems obvious, but it wasn't when I was in high school. Back then the attitude was that it didn't really matter how much a university cost. If it was a top-ranked school, they told us that we'd be making so much money in the first few years of our professional careers that we'd be able to pay it all back in no time. This is a frightening proposition to seniors who took on tens of thousands of dollars in loans and will probably earn enough money in their first job (if they're lucky enough to land one) to barely squeak by making the minimum payments for the next few years.

The college counselors at my high school were nice people, and I don't think they had an intentionally malevolent agenda; but their incentives were not necessarily the aligned with the students'. It's a marketing ploy for any private school (or public school, for that matter) to claim that 99% of their graduates go straight to four-year colleges. It's even more impressive to have a list of Ivy League and other elite schools where students attended. What they don't always tell you is whether the students who went to them could afford it, and how many of them transferred to a less elite school or dropped out of college entirely. It looks like the approach that college seniors are taking is beginning to change, thanks to the great recession. It's just too bad it took until now for that change to happen.


Giovanni said…
I can appreciate this post. I spent quite a few hours carefully cataloging every letter and application packet from numerous colleges only to make a bad choice during my senior year and decide to go to school in state. Nonetheless I am very happy that I did go to school in state and was able to graduate without any debt.

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