An open letter to High School seniors



It’s October. For millions of American high school seniors, choosing what to do after receiving the high school degree begins now. It represents the first life-altering decision made by you about which you get to call the shots.

Here are some important points to think about as you move into the decision-making season.

The first is that college is not for everyone. In the sputtering economy that characterizes post-recession America, there are still good jobs that do not require a college degree. Further, there is a difference between a job and a career. Jobs pay the bills and sometimes build to a career. Think carefully about what you want while the window to imagine your future is still wide open.

You should take a job but plan for a career.

Your first decision, logically, is whether or not to go to college. If you choose to opt out, what are your interests, how can you use your senior year to prepare, what connections to the field do you have in place, and how can your high school guidance counselors, teachers, family and friends help you?

Don’t put the rest of your life on hold. Senior year is fun but is at best a moment in time. Even for the procrastinators among you, it’s time to move on now.

Take a deep breath. Deciding upon your future is only a crisis if you let it escalate into one. Anxiety can be healthy and sharpen your sense of the opportunities out there.

To get there, have you looked at the pragmatic questions that shape your decision? Can you find an apprenticeship, a certification program, or an on-site training option that will ultimately lead to a job with benefits?

Ignore the cracks made by print and social media pundits about the unskilled (or even those with college degrees) populating the serving counters of fast food chains or their equivalents. Go in with eyes wide open and start somewhere – anywhere. Remember that your first job is not your last job and will likely be one of many you hold as demographics shift and industry patterns change.

Hedge your bets. Community colleges offer two choices. The first is a two-year degree that often represents a pathway to a four-year degree, typically for a fraction of the price of a baccalaureate diploma. Community colleges also provide workforce preparation, often supported by corporations locally and nationally. What can you afford, how can you move into a field that reflects your general range of interests, and can you do so with a certificate in a chosen field from vocational/technical or community colleges?

For some, on line degree programs work well, including at for-profit institutions. Beware of the seller and check debt load and outputs like employment post certificate patterns carefully.

The second option is that a four-year college is for you. The worst reason to go to college is because you cannot think of anything else to do. A close second on the “bad ideas” list is because your family expects you to go to college. If you share your family’s values, the question is a moot point because you will already know the “why” if not quite yet the “what” of your college decision. Like your family, you believe that college makes sense as your next step.

It’s October so you should begin to sit down and prepare the applications. You should take advantage of whatever preliminary research you have done. Close your eyes and ask first: Do I want a big university, smaller college, or a start in a community college? Ignore most of the chatter of your friends except to listen for a sense of the trends that may guide the 2014 application season.

For many of you, these fellow applicants whose friendship seems so important in senior year will become individuals whose names you can’t immediately recall at your 30th high school reunion. You are your best counsel.

Can you afford to go to college? If you accept that premise that you and your family should, if at all possible, have some “skin in the game” financially to meet college payments, what level of debt matches your ability to work in the general range of employment options that might interest you and still pay off your loans?

Do you want to go to college locally, within a defined perimeter with your home at the center, or use college as an opportunity to live “away”? If you are a legacy, do not presume that your status automatically entitles you to a seat at your family’s alma mater. If you are a good athlete, avoid the mistake of assuming that college is a ticket to a lucrative NBA contract. Many may play but few are chosen.

In the end, college is about getting a good education. To modify a slogan from an earlier national political campaign, “It’s the academics, stupid.”

You can be happy at any number of schools on your list. There is no single perfect college. When making your decision, combine imagination with practicality. Be fearless.

You might be surprised at where a little thought, some planning, a willingness to accept a few rejection letters, and an understanding of how you fit into the bigger world might take you.