Why the school should not support every student going to college

The Wednesday Society

On March 3rd, Waunakee High School juniors all took the ACT. For 5 hours, the entire class of juniors sat filling out bubbles on a standardized test, so they can eventually get an ACT score, which they can use to apply to college and eventually find a job. While the juniors may detest the test for the excessive time they had to spend bubbling, the presumption that college is the default option for everyone is potentially even worse.

A college education is often very helpful and necessary for many professions, especially STEM fields. Additionally, a liberal arts education can help students hone their critical thinking skills and discover interests. Both situations are clearly attractive to potential employers. 

However, they also depend on how students take advantage of their time in school. When students use their time in college to pursue opportunities like research, internships or student organizations, it gives them the experiences and connections they can use to fill their resumes and launch their careers.

Obviously, a college diploma can often make finding a job easier, but not all jobs necessitate college degrees. The skills needed to perform in many jobs are now available to learn online or even through training on the job itself. Different kinds of jobs require different types and levels of experiences, and college is often one such type of experience, but it is not always.

College is expensive. It often costs tens of thousands of dollars per year, and students often need to take out loans to be able to afford it. According to Time, student loan debts totaled “more than $1.5 trillion,” as of 2019. That doesn’t even include the opportunity cost of the time the student spends in college if they do not end up needing their degree for their career. Unless the student is absolutely certain that a college education is what they want, a college degree might not be the best use of his or her time.

Beyond the financial risk, the expectation that students go to college negatively affects their perception of college. When the job market assumes applicants should have a college degree, students’ perception of college changes. 

While college is a path to gain practical skills, experiences and connections to help a student’s career, making it the default can turn it into a generic milestone in the student’s life, another box to check.

When students forget why they are in college, they can fail to take advantage of all its opportunities. When college is just a place to spend four years to get a diploma, why not spend it partying. 

The value of a college education is what the student makes of his or her time there, but if students know they are going to attend college regardless of what they make of it, then the incentive to make the most of that time decreases.

College is a means to an end. It never hurts to enjoy the journey, but the purpose should always remain clear. If a student doesn’t have a reason to go to school, then there is no need for that student to go to school, and the student can save a lot of time and money by not.

All of these problems stem from the expectation that students should always go to college, that going to a four year university is the “smart” or “responsible” choice for every student. By creating this expectation, our culture makes a Bachelor’s degree the default for potential employees rather than a high school diploma, devaluing both degrees.

While Waunakee High School did not invent this expectation, it does help perpetuate it. The school encourages all students to attend college when it has every single junior take the ACT, a test whose sole purpose is to communicate a student’s level of academic preparedness to colleges. Even though students can opt out of the ACT, the default is that they are expected to take the test, just like the school’s default is to prepare students for college.