This piece is a follow up to Thunk Tank Podcast’s recent episode on higher education, which you can download and listen to here! 

by Joe Labriola

auditorium, benches, chairs

You’re 16 years old. Barely old enough to operate a car — and not even by yourself. You’re legally not allowed to buy beer, vote, or get married. Yet there is one choice that looms — a decision that could carve the course of your life more than any other:

Where do you go to college?

How many decisions have shaped your life at such a young age? Yet that’s what we do. By the millions. Year after year. But why? Is this the best path to a successful education? Career? Life?

Or are there other ways? “Better” ways? Options that will lead to higher “success” or at least happiness?

There’s certainly no “one solution fits all” answer, and perhaps that’s the point. You could write an entire instruction manual on “How to Choose a College” and, well, plenty of people have. But that still doesn’t mean that there’s a clear explanation — and certainly not a clear path for every high schooler who’s more concerned about prom dates than promising college courses.

As a college writing composition instructor, I see all types of students: from wide-eyed freshman who haven’t figured out how laundry machines work yet, to gruzzled transfer students who know all too well the panic of waking up in a triple dorm room to the sight of their roommate clipping their toenails onto the carpet and wondering ‘What the hell am I paying to live with these assholes for?’. Whatever their backgrounds, its important to note their common trait: expectations rarely match reality.

adolescent, adult, beauty

While some end up transfering to a school better suited for their needs and dreams, many more end up relatively “unhappy” with their “fated” decision, especially if they lacked the guidance and research that others were blessed with at the ripe wise age of an 11th grade high schooler.

Some simple advice: research, research, research. And not just university websites. Research everything. Everyone. It’s a great rule in life, and applies here as much as anywhere else. Research universities that might stand out to you, but also the forces guiding your academic paths. That means: counselors, parents, campus recruiters, loan services, etc. They all have their motivations (some more “noble” than others), but what are they? Answer the question of ‘why do they really want you to do the thing they’re telling you to do?’ and you’ll know whether or not to heed their advice.

Counselors want their high schoolers to attend well-renowned institutions. They want their own résumés to be able to quantify how many of their pupils went on to achieve Ivy League degrees at their behest.

Parents want you to succeed. They want you to carry on their legacy. Often times, a four year bachelor’s degree is a great place to start: setting you up with the credibility and networking tools for further academic pursuits, and eventually, good paying jobs. Parents (in part) achieve what you do.

The universities themselves want you to want them. They want you clamoring to try to write a better personal statement essay than the next best student. The more you want (or “need”) them, the more they can charge you for their services. Supply and demand works at all levels of salesmanship. As much as a university president wants admission numbers (and their salary) to keep rising, a lowly college recruiter wants to keep their job too. Your application is their livelihood, so, come on in!

Loan services, oh…loan services… They might want you more than anyone, and they’re not even real people! Well, maybe someone behind their payment reminder emails is, but by your 300th monthly bill, you’re sure to feel a tad disillusioned by their impersonal repayment prodding. So is a four year degree worth possibly decades of monthly indebtedness? Might be. But you sure as hell better make sure that’s a choice (and math) worth making.

Telling students to “research” their options sounds simple enough, but in reality students often don’t know where to start, or end. I’ve taught in New York City public schools where many high schoolers have no honest clue how to begin the college search, or the application process…or scholarship research. Lo and behold, any one of these areas can quickly become a massive roadblock for the unprepared. This is a particular issue for those whose parents never went to college, unfamiliar with these processes themselves. Experience begets experience. Same for lack of experience.

Even so, my parents went to college, prompted me to do the same (along with my high school guidance counselors), and I was still ill-prepared to make such choices. Not that these mentors didn’t help me — and that’s the point. Even with these auxiliary forces guiding my helm, it took: three colleges and five years before finally graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

I took about a year and a half off between undergraduate and graduate school — which in retrospect was perhaps the best decision of my academic career. The gap gave me time to think, to research, to plan. To really know what program I wanted to sacrifice the next few years earning an advanced degree in. I took time to work, reflect, and realize a path forward worth forging.

I think this is advice worth considering for high schoolers as well. I’ve seen first hand the fresh and fruitful perspective that students who took a year or two “off” between high school and undergraduate college bring to my classroom. Instead, they worked, traveled, and got a sense of themselves in places outside their home — and the academic bubble.

It’s a rare breed, for sure. Maybe one or two out of every one hundred of my students dare such a path. But they’re consistently the most productive and passionate in each class they sprout up in — both to themselves and those they affect around them. But are they a product of their paths? Or do such temperaments lean toward such alternate routes? Does a year or two of extra maturing in itself make all the difference?

This isn’t to say that everyone should take a “gap year” — plenty of students end up perfectly happy with their initial college admittance decision. But the consideration to take some time “to figure it out” should be given — which it often won’t by the aforementioned forces for their aforementioned purposes. And again, not that they don’t want to help you. But why not help you while helping themselves? That’s certainly one way that everyone is happy.

accomplishment, ceremony, college

Of course, it’s important to note that the last thing universities want is to in any way aid in proliferating a trend of young people either delaying or foregoing college altogether. Indeed, such a decision could be bad for you, but would definitely be detrimental to their bottom line. No surprise that scholarship packages are often the most enticing to high schoolers than they are to returning and or transfer students.

But, what about what way makes you the “happiest”? Maybe, like in life, mistakes in choosing the “right” college have to sometimes be made. In order to grow and learn — to figure out what you don’t want as much as do want.

None of this is to suggest that college doesn’t offer great benefits, whether they be social, academic, career, etc. I know first hand as a college instructor that they do. But again, there’s no one path for everyone. Maybe go to college right from high school. Maybe wait. Maybe find an apprenticeship program that works for you. With the right research and self-reflection, you’ll undoubtedly find your way.

Joe Labriola is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University in New York. He is also a cohost of Thunk Tank Podcast.