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College Is the Wrong Choice for Many Students

With the May 1st deadline for college enrollment deposits fast approaching, I wonder how many high school seniors are getting cold feet about their decision to attend ("Why Parents Pick the Wrong Colleges For Their Kids," Time, Apr. 14)?  I say that because there's something about writing a check for a hefty amount that suddenly brings reality into sharp focus.

Until now, seniors have been caught up in the college-for-all obsession, even though I'm not convinced that they really had thought through what going to college meant.  Yes, they probably are able to cite the ranking of the college that admitted them as well as average starting salaries after graduation.  But I doubt that they all understand what college-level work entails.

According to John Katzman, the founder and former CEO of The Princeton Review, and Steve Cohen, co-author of Getting In: College Admission in the Digital Age, only 542,000 of the 4 million students who apply to college are admitted to the 350 most competitive schools.  The other 3.5 million are often forgotten.  What that seems to imply is that there is a distinct advantage in graduating only from a top-tier college or university.  Graduating from the others provides no significant leg-up.

I know the statistics about the lifetime wage premium attached to a bachelor's degree over a high school diploma.  But I question if the premium still exists when student debt and choice of majors are factored in.  For example, what do studies today show about those who attended community college to earn a certificate in a specific trade compared with those who graduated from a third-tier university with a degree in the humanities?

There was a time when only a relatively small percentage of high school seniors graduated from college.  As a result, their very limited numbers alone immediately distinguished them from their peers.  But today it seems that four-year degrees are proliferating to the point that they have become far less meaningful in the real world. That's something to consider before signing the check for the college enrollment deposit.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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