Our Universities: Open Letter to High School Graduates

Dear Graduating Senior,

I must beg your pardon for a somber reflection amidst the joy of your accomplishment: not to be a wet rag on the festivities of graduation, but to shine a light on the realities of post-secondary education.

If you are going on to a state university, your GPA is a 3.5 or better, your ACT or SAT score is at the 70th percentile – placing you in the top 30% of current test takers – and you enter the University this year, about 56% of students with similar qualifications will graduate in 4 years. What’s surprising about this number is that it’s not higher, closer to 85 or 90%. But college is tough. That is what you pay for.

On the other hand, if you’re going to a university with a more typical 2.8 GPA and are at the 45th percentile on the ACT or SAT, the likelihood of finishing in 6 years drops to well below 50%. These are not great odds. These aren’t like the odds that you had in high school, when graduation was nearly guaranteed. Passing your classes takes more than showing up.  Access does not automatically equal success.

It’s not surprising that if you are well-prepared for college study – a good GPA, ACT/SAT score, and class rank in the top 50% – you are more likely to succeed.

Nearly two out of three students on the way to a baccalaureate degree borrow money.  This has not always been the case, and this new norm is troubling. While the high school experience is funded by the community, the university experience is not.  Furthermore, the drop-out rate for those who take loans is nearly 23%. Imagine taking out a loan for a car, only to find out on delivery that the price you agreed to didn’t include an engine.  Now imagine you were still on the hook for monthly payments.

If you haven’t achieved solid academic performance in high school, don’t believe a university, its leadership, advertisements, or admissions officers when they tell you not to worry about going into debt for your degree.  They have no responsibility for making the payments, and they have different interests than you do.

They need paying students.

Stoking a deceitful dream of a life of middle-class ease – an over-financed, media-hyped charade – is the real deception, and the weight will fall on your back, not theirs, and it’s a shameful, elaborate sham when one out of two college graduates this year are unemployable in their chosen field.

Look carefully at the costs and benefits of university education.

University officials may not tell you the truth: enrollments could drop.

Bankers will not tell you the truth: interest income will fall off.

Government officials will not tell you the truth: votes might be lost.

Talk to family, friends, and educators for counsel, and listen carefully to the people who are really concerned for you.

If you choose to attend a “second best” university, you may be lulled into thinking that your chances for graduation will improve significantly. Not true. You will find, at good mid-major institutions and many teachers colleges, that high-quality faculty demand energy, interest, intellectual acuity and classroom performance; and, if you haven’t exhibited these in high school, the likelihood that you will spontaneously develop them amid the distractions of university life is nearly nil. Very few break this curve.

Maybe you think you can find a low-stress major and eek by with little work. Of course, you probably won’t find a job – remember half don’t. Econ 101 tells it like it is –YGWYPF. And if you’re borrowing, you’ll be paying for a long time.

A degree with a major in a low-demand field, with salary prospects near minimum wage and $25,000 to $50,000 in debt – is less valuable than a good high school diploma with four years of life experience.

Unenlightened? Call me a caveman. Cruel? I think of it as honest.

Here is the substance of my advice as you graduate.

One: If you have to borrow money to enter a university straight away, don’t.  Go to a community college. Pick rigorous courses that you know will transfer and get them at an 80% discount off the cost of state university prices.  Prove yourself and become eligible for scholarships and grants.

Don’t borrow a dime.

If you need a hand finishing up after demonstrating ability at a community college, borrow sparingly in the last two years, but never in the first two.


Two: If your life circumstance requires you to work and study simultaneously, do it. There is no law of the universe that says a college education must take four years. If it takes more, and you can do it for cash, do it. Don’t borrow money.

Three: Consider carefully with your family and counselors you trust, the dollar value of your career path choice. Find a way to graduate from college with useful skills and little or no debt.  I applaud volunteers and humanitarians.  I support the desire to do noble work.  Just don’t go into ignoble debt to do it.

Four: If you are taking out loans so that you can walk to class in C-note Nikes, checking a Diesel watch to see if you’re late, you are acting foolishly. Sorry for my insensitive straightforwardness. When every friend you have heads to Acapulco on spring break, don’t go. Go do something noble, create capital, work, study. But, don’t spend and don’t export borrowed capital.

Five: Lastly, if you think you worked hard in high school, know that any university worth going to will have you working at levels 4 to 5 times more challenging for a good GPA.

If you think this sounds crazy, please, just show this to someone unbiased that you respect and ask them for their honest opinion.

When you find your path, study hard, work diligently, and challenge yourself intellectually.

All the best in your future.




9 thoughts on “Our Universities: Open Letter to High School Graduates

  1. Excellent article and very relevant to a certain institution increasing tuition fees, ecouraging student debt, and providing less for the money – unless you count the increasing higher administrative hires!

  2. I agree with Walter’s advice–for graduate school. One should indeed not accumulate much debt at the grad level (especially in a field without a good job market, including any field in the humanities–like mine). If you get into a decent graduate program that doesn’t normally lead to a high paying job (i.e., med school or law school), you need to be funded (probably by teachign). But undergraduate education, not being state financed in this country, has long involved some level of debt for the middle class on down. Expecting students to pay as they go will result in students working too many hours to give their studies adequate time, and taking too long to graduate–if ever they graduate. Naturally, stressing thrift is important: students who can afford iPhones but can’t afford to buy the books they need for their classes need to readjust their priorities. You should expect to be poor while in school, and not afford Acapulco–unless Mom and Dad are paying. Debt should be kept to a minimum; but education is something worth paying for, I think.

    Keep in mind that “You Get What You Pay For” applies to community college as well as anything else. Community colleges provide an essential service, and if you are a high school student who did poorly at HS they may be ideal for you, as a bridge to college–especially if they allow you to get into a better college, or even to win merit based aid you couldn’t have won straight out of high school. But if you are a strong student, go to a decent four year school from the get go. Get professors with PhDs, not teachers with MAs. Community colleges are largely staffed by adjuncts who qualify for food stamps: they are good people, but are often underqualified and always miserably compensated and overworked. Get to a decent four year school; seek out classes taught by profs, not GAs–and if you are in a large class, make a point of getting to know the prof nonetheless.
    Pay attention to the finances, by all means. But a college education ought to also be about more than finances. If you go to college, you had better get an education that goes beyond job training. If all you are interested in is job training, then Walter’s analysis may be right for you.

  3. Excellent post! You have presented this information in the best possible way. I continue to mention to potential college students that they need to carefully think about their choices in terms of higher education, field/major, costs, and debt. It is amazing that students are so thorough when purchasing a car, but are not so thorough when deciding upon a higher education. Thanks so much for you post. Please continue with your message to others.

  4. The wonderful, common sense type of advice that I’ve had to bite my tongue for so long so as not to espouse, that I speak with an impediment.

  5. You are so right. Thanks for this post. I graduated with almost $20K in debt and a liberal arts degree four years ago. I was blessed to find a company that offered me 30% more than everybody else, and I was able to pay off my debt in a short time. Still, the months of paying the debt opened my eyes to a realty that I did not understand when I was signing loan agreements. I was super lucky, but many of my cohort are in misery right now… And those extra two years of parties weren’t worth the current reality of life now. I am sharing this with as many as I can to try and let them know before they go.

  6. Very good advice, Education is an investment. There should be a good return on the investment. As opposed to most current “thinking” that there is a free lunch just waiting for everyone.

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