Friday, December 11, 2009

Tis the season...

It is that time of year. It is a time of great excitement and just a little anxiety. The employees of United States Postal Service are among the most popular people on the planet at this time of the year. In their delivery bags they carry some of the most precious and highly anticipated mail of the year: The college acceptance/denial letter.

Get the big packet, you are IN! Get the thin, number 10 sized envelope, you are not.

High school seniors around the country are waiting. They are waiting for the answer that leads to the next Big Step in their lives.

I have been in the business of higher education for over 20 years. I have worked at almost every kind of college there is with the exception of a for-profit like the University of Phoenix. I have seen students successfully navigate the years of hard work, tests, reports, extracurricular activities and social ups and downs at a community college, a 4 year state college, a very selective and competitive 4 year private college, and a few in between 4 year privates. Here is what I have to say about college:

You can have a good time, and be academically successful, and then become a productive citizen with a job by going to ANY college. Sure some colleges do some things better than others. If you have a yen (and the talent) to be a doctor, you should definitely go to a college as an undergraduate that will give you the undergraduate degree and experience that will lead to getting into medical school. Do not go and be a philosophy major, unless you plan on getting a PhD and not an MD. If you want to be an astronaut, go to a school which offers a good engineering or aerospace program. Do not become a History major.

But aside from programs that are very specialized and require certain skill sets and talents, most college students will succeed not because of the college they attend, but because of what they bring to the college.

Be prepared to do the work. No one hands you your grades. You are the only person responsible for how well or poorly you do in your classes. Sure, some professors are better than others, but if you apply yourself and figure out how to do the work they way the instructor needs you to do it, you will succeed.

Be prepared to participate. Join a group, a team, become part of the community. Build sets or be part of the cast for a play. Sing in the chorus. Join student government. Do something that gets you out of your room and involves you in the life of the college. The friends and connections you make there will last a lifetime.

Work. Get a job on campus. Studies are clear - students who engage on campus as a work study student do better academically, persist and graduate on time, and build a network of relationships with staff and faculty that last well beyond the four or so years they spend at college and enrich their lives. I have personally been a reference for at least 5 of my work study students for either jobs after college or for grad school applications. Those connections are invaluable.

Don't stress about your major, unless you are ready to specialize out of the gate. I changed my major once as an undergrad, and then never did work in the field I got my degree in. I had to get a masters degree, but that is OK. I worked that out as I went along. Very few people figure out at age 17 or 18, or even 40 sometimes, what they want to be when they grow up. Start by taking your core classes and maybe a few major specific classes to figure out whether that is the right direction for you if you don't know.

Money. If you get offered some money to go to college, GREAT! Good for you. But you cannot count on getting enough to pay for all of it. You just can't. As the economy continues to be in the toilet, and people are still being laid off or losing income, colleges are being challenged to stretch their own limited resources even further to assist students with the cost of an education. At my college we offer quite a bit of money to our students, over 16 million this year for 1500 students in just institutional aid. But many of our students still borrow to pay for college. Be prepared and educated about your options for paying for school, and be prepared to make the hard choice. If a college is just out of your reach financially, it may not be the right decision to go there. You might have to finance too much and come out with too much debt in the end. Maybe some other college, with a similar program or offerings that costs you less is going to meet your needs just as well.

Consider commuting or going to a local community or state school for a year or two and then transfer to a bigger or more selective college for your final years. You might be delaying your ultimate dream for a bit, but in the end, you still get a diploma with that last college's name on it, and you still have the opportunities you were looking for, for less money.

Choices. It is all about the choices. You need to own this decision and be educated about your options. In the end, it is you the student who makes the biggest difference in how you experience college. What do you bring to the table, how much do you invest of yourself and how hard do you work. Where you go is not nearly as important.

Here is hoping that you all have fat envelopes in your mailboxes and nothing but exciting options to weigh.

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