Before spending a huge amount of money on college, you need to know who you are

College is expensive. Perhaps our students need to learn more about themselves in order to be better students at a four-year college or university.

Abby Falik
Opinion contributor

April can be a cruel month for high school seniors. Students and parents anxiously await college admissions decisions, feeling like their whole future is on the line. While the proverbial thick envelope (now a measly email) can bring relief and even a celebratory TikTok, a rejection can dash dreams. 

Should an admissions committee, overwhelmed by application inflation that makes the outcomes more arbitrary each year, really have such power over young peoples’ lives?

Absolutely not.  

In our fixation on status, we’ve missed the point and ignored the data: Where you go matters far less than how you approach it. Yes, admission to a famous school can open doors. But credentials alone can’t equip us to lead a purposeful life. 

Class of 2022

High school graduation

Here’s my advice: Don’t send your child to college until they’re prepared to make the most of it.

The class of 2022 is graduating into a world that’s more unstable and uncertain than it has ever been. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages and the global temperature rises – both literally and figuratively – today’s graduates are facing challenges of truly epic proportions. 

As we grapple with what education can look like after quarantine and Zoom, we have a historic opportunity to reject a reflexive return to “normal." It’s time to make the transition after high school what it has the potential to be: a transformation. And not just for the privileged few, but for every young person on the cusp of adulthood. 

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College is the single biggest investment we make in a young person’s life. Four years at a flagship state school can now cost $100,000, and private colleges can run three to four times that figure. Many families are girding themselves for decades of debt. 

And recent interest rate hikes will only make things worse. Yet the vast majority of students arrive unprepared to make the most of the experience.

The transition out of high school can be one of the most formative stages in life, but only if we encourage students to step off the achievement treadmill. High school has become a high-stakes game to get into college. We’re still teaching to tests that robots can literally pass, and admissions boards reward perfect records over exploration and conformity over creativity. Put simply, our schools are focused on the wrong things. 

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While millions of 18-year-olds join religious or military missions, secular and civilian alternatives like Teach for America require a college degree. Societies and religions have long recognized late adolescence as a prime developmental moment for formation experiences. It’s the period when a young person has the maturity to leave home but is still shaping their values and identity, the moment one shifts from riding shotgun to taking the wheel. Despite this, our culture still encourages kids to run harder and faster toward an elusive finish line, rather than taking a step back to discover who they’re called to become. 

The best investment we can make – the one with the highest return in every sense – is to not send anyone to college before they know their “why."

For nearly two decades, I’ve been a leading advocate for a reinvented gap year – one that’s more accessible and purposeful than our traditional associations with the term. I’ve seen thousands of students make the courageous choice to resist the cultural inertia of going straight to college. 

The point isn’t to drop out or lose momentum; it’s to gather experiences and insights that inform everything that comes next.

Finding time to find yourself

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year

Before setting foot on a college campus, students need time away from teachers and tests to figure out who they want to be, what the world needs – and how they will reconcile the two. This isn’t an elite plea for kids to put on a backpack and travel around Europe. The most transformative years coax young adults outside their comfort zones, where they forge connections with people decidedly unlike their classmates in service of a broader aim. When approached in this way, rather than being a “gap," this year can fill in the gaps left by our formal education.

Exhausted parents may well ask: Can we afford this “pause”? In my experience, we can’t afford not to. The best investment we can make – the one with the highest return in every sense – is to not send anyone to college before they know their “why."  

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I can’t count the number of recent high school graduates who have joined Global Citizen Year, the nonprofit I founded and lead, “knowing” they wanted to become a doctor. Then they spend a year as an apprentice in a health clinic in Senegal and come back knowing, with conviction, that they don’t want to be a doctor – or perhaps they still do, but now it’s not a default but a considered choice.

Answering this question before signing onto the pre-med (or pre-anything) track can save massive time and angst – not to mention, money – down the line. These kids aren’t just swept along, doing what they think is expected of them. They’re making informed, deliberate choices.

When I think about my aspirations for my own sons, who are now 5 and 7, I hope that when they finish they’ve developed an identity beyond “student” and a set of goals loftier than “getting into college.” I’m convinced they won’t go directly from high school to college as many of us did. Soon, no one will. And the result will be better for them, and better for the world.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, is an expert on social innovation and the changing landscape of education. Follow her on Twitter: @abbyfalik