April is an exciting, desperately anticipated month for countless high school seniors across the country who eagerly await the bulky envelope containing that coveted acceptance letter. However, for an unfortunately large percentage of soon-to-be high school graduates, April means the end of their formal education. This phenomenon, perpetuated by financial concerns, past academic failures, and lack of motivation or self-doubt, to name a few, seems too tragic to be considered with such apathy. High school can be a time of tremendous growth and, with the right influences, can propel students toward a successful and meaningful course of future action. Regrettably, in too many cases, those influences are not enough and the effort falls short.
The U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported in a 2008 study that 62.7 percent of 16 to 24 years old who graduated from high school in the preceding 12 months enrolled in college. This meant that 37.3 percent, or 1,102,215 students, abandoned a college education. With such a selective job market and an uncertain economy, a college degree is life altering. To those students who had a choice, why not decide to enroll in, or even just apply to college?
Financial concerns are always a contributing factor. As much as teenagers often appear detached from their families’ finances, they are usually acutely aware of the stress created by monetary woes within the family. And college is no cheap ordeal. According to the College Board, the average tuition for a private four-year institution is $26,273. Even the $7,020 public four-year option can be too steep a price for some families. Economists estimate that the average discretionary income of a U.S. household–the amount of income remaining after tax, mortgage and rent payments, healthcare expenditures, food spending, and a variety of other expenses which are considered essential–is between $12,000 and $18,000. That means that for the average American family, paying in full for a child to attend a private college will require either the family or the child to take on student loans. Even sending a child to a public college will cost a family roughly half of its discretionary income for the year.
While these numbers can seem daunting, students should not let purely financial reasons deter them from applying or enrolling in college. Currently, there is more than $168 billion in financial aid available to students and their families and, as reported by a 2009 NCES study, 66 percent of all undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. Even the government is contributing. Federal student aid and tax credits of up to $2,500 are available, but even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees that more must be done to make students aware of the availability of these tax credits. Students must know that they have options when it comes to financial aid and these concerns should not stop them from taking the steps towards enrolling in college.
Maturation comes with time, and for many students, that time doesn’t come in high school. For whatever reason, whether it be an obstinate attitude, a lack of focus, or teenage angst, school is simply not a priority. High schoolers are still young, and are often not yet equipped with foresight and the clear understanding of how to make choices to positively impact their future beyond that party next Friday night. They don’t turn in assignments on time, their grades fall, and failure becomes habitual. By the time the college application process rolls around, juvenile mistakes and poor decisions have left them behind. A study performed by The Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA reported that only 4.7 percent of college freshmen at four-year institutions in 2008 had an average grade of C to C+ in high school. This sounds promising–like students are doing better in high school prior to matriculation– but what about all the students that ended high school in that grade range? High school may not have been their shining moment academically, but their educational path should not have to end so abruptly.
For these students, school guidance offices have to step up to the plate. Students must know there are still plenty of options. Community college, unfortunately stigmatized, is an excellent alternative for those without the means, grades, or confidence to apply to a four-year school. Students at Essex County College, a school near my community, have an average weighted high school GPA of 2.20, which is in the D range. This does not discredit the value of an education earned there, but rather it emphasizes the commitment of those who struggled in high school to getting on a path toward meaningful employment and a better future. For those students doubting their ability to achieve acceptance, many two-year colleges, such as Essex County College, which admitted 100% of its applicants for the 2009 fall term, have open admissions. Even a Certificate or Associate Degree from a two-year college can open up a world of opportunity in employment or even option of transfer to a four-year college.
A friend and I were discussing how significantly attending college alters the course of one’s life. To us, the thought of resolvable issues holding students back from doing so was utterly distressing. He put forth the idea that in order to graduate, our school should require every student to apply to two colleges, be them community colleges or private national institutions, and that the school would aid in admissions and financial aid processes if necessary. While a school should not decide or be ultimately responsible for the future of its students, I wonder how many lives would be changed if those applications which might have never been attempted without school encouragement and aid were followed by acceptance letters.