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The college hype machine

Randall F. Clemens

Teenagers choose colleges based on reputations. The participants in my study often post or talk about wanting to go to universities like Columbia, University of Arizona, USC, or UCLA. Those preferences are not random; they are based on the schools’ images and the students’ reactions to those images. Columbia is an intellectual powerhouse. Arizona has a great basketball team. USC is a football juggernaut. UCLA has a legendary basketball tradition. Unfortunately, reputation doesn’t always equal reality.

Growing up, I cheered for University of Maryland athletics. During my senior year, my father agreed to pay for college. He gave two conditions: First, I had to go to community college for two years. Second, I had to go to the state school. Although I really wanted to attend an Ivy (again, reputation), I loved Maryland. After two years of community college, the choice was easy. In the spring of 2002, the Terps won the national championship. That fall, I matriculated to college. 

Although I love Maryland, the school was the wrong choice. Circumstances changed the week before I began classes. My mother and I were left to finance my education. I commuted an hour to and from campus everyday, and my college experience diverged significantly from most of my peers. During my time in college, I was given little career advice. After graduation, I was left with student loans and no obvious next step.

An undergraduate degree is no longer a golden ticket. 

We often speak in broad strokes: College is important. Go to college. Pick the right school. But, we ignore the details— financial aid, student debt, faculty-to-student ratios, graduation rates (for everyone and for low-income minorities), and career readiness. Those details add up. For a lot of first-generation, low-income college-goers, they are the difference between graduate school and a successful career and returning home and joining the working poor. 

Postsecondary education has become a reality for an unprecedented number of teenagers. What is their reward? Often, they get to spend two years in large seminars where they rarely interact with professors. At best, they are motivated and skilled. They figure out what to do. At worst, they do not receive the support they need and dropout with substantial debts. 

High schools need to do a better job of teaching the right questions to ask, and universities need to be held accountable for the success of their students. This week, a young man I’m mentoring was accepted to USC. He was absolutely ecstatic. I worry he will not have that same feeling four years and five months from now.