Originally published over a decade ago in the Chicago Tribune (May 17, 2012), but updated here.
Dear Graduating Senior,
I am begging your pardon for a somber reflection amidst the joy of the near completion of high school – not to be a wet rag on that accomplishment, but a bright 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 six years. What’s surprising about this number is that it’s not higher, closer to 85 or 90%. However, college is tough. That is what you pay for.
On the other hand, if you’re going to a university with a more typical 3.0 GPA and are at the 45th percentile on the ACT or SAT, the likelihood of finishing in six years drops to well below 50%. These are not great odds. Not like the odds that you carried to high school when graduation was nearly guaranteed.
It shouldn’t surprise you that if you are well-prepared for college study you are more likely to succeed, whether on borrowed funds or your own dime. However, access does not equal success.
Nearly two out of three students on the way to a baccalaureate degree borrow money. This is troubling. While the high school experience appears to be free, unless of course, you pay taxes, the university experience is not. Additionally, the drop-out rate for those who take loans is nearly 23%. Imagine taking out a car note and never being able to drive it.
If you haven’t posted a good academic performance in high school, don’t believe everything a university, its leadership, advertisements or admissions officers say – those who co-sign your promissory note with no responsibility for its payment obligation. They need paying students. Stoking a deceitful dream on life support – an under-appreciated, over-financed, media-hyped charade – is the real deception, and the weight falls on your back, not theirs.
Look carefully at the costs and benefits of a 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. Elected officials will not tell you the truth: elections will be lost. Talk to family, friends, and educators for counsel and listen to them carefully.
At good regional institutions, high-quality faculty demand energy, interest, intellectual acuity and classroom performance. If you haven’t exhibited these in high school, the likelihood that you will spontaneously develop them amid the distractions of university is near nil. There are very few curve breakers.
Maybe you can find a low-stress major and get through on little work. You probably won’t find a job – remember half don’t. Economics 101 tells it like it is -YGWYPF. In reality, though, if you are borrowing, you didn’t pay for it. Yet.
A low-employability, near minimum wage major and $40,000 in debt (national average) is less valuable than a good high school diploma with four years of 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 (talk to the institution you want to transfer to), and get them at an 80% discount off the cost of state university prices. Don’t borrow a dime. If you need a boost to finish 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 in a chosen career option with little or no debt.
Four: When every friend you’ve got heads to Acapulco on spring break, don’t go. Go do something noble to create capital. Work or study. But, don’t spend borrowed money.
Five: Lastly, if you think you worked hard in high school, know that any university worth its salt will have you working at levels four to five times more challenging for a good GPA.
Study hard, work diligently and challenge yourself intellectually. Show this to someone you respect and ask him or her if I sound crazy. I dare you.
Attend college with eyes wide open.
All the best in your future.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/.