Ruby Sigmund, Co-Editor-in-Chief

The United States was built on an ideal of meritocracy, the belief that individuals can rise in socioeconomic status based on their talent, skills and effort. In a utopian reality, this ideal would allow for boundless opportunities following high school. However, a large percentage of high school students do not have the privileges of wealth and whiteness needed for meritocracy to ring true in their decisions on what to do with their lives post-graduation. Columbia High School (CHS) is no exception. 

A CHS student survey found that of the approximately 485 CHS graduates in the class of 2020, 79% went to college, 19% went into the workforce or were undecided in their postgrads plans and 2% took a gap year. On average, about 66% of high schoolers from the class of 2019 chose to enroll in college, despite possibly accruing large sums of debt in the process: in fact, college students now graduate with an average debt of about $30,000.

Why do so many students still choose to pursue higher education despite the price? “College is oftentimes seen as the only pathway to success post-high school because the demand for more education in our society is increasing exponentially,” Julianna Rufolo, a 2020 graduate of CHS, explained. “Especially in upper-middle class town[s] like ours where the majority of kids attend college, it is seared into our brains that this is just the next step [and] that there aren’t many alternatives.” 

This sentiment of post-graduate life being a narrow road ahead rather than one with branching pathways stems from both parental and peer pressure. “We’ve always assumed and expected that our child would go to college,” an anonymous parent stated. “We began talking about college as early as elementary school. We took our child with us to visit our alma maters and have always shared with them our enthusiasm for higher education.” 

Parents also experience additional anxiety due to the online culture that surrounds college admissions. “The media – whether social or national – certainly can exacerbate stress when you read about some of the amazing achievements of some young people,” Laura Booker, parent of two including a junior at CHS, explained. Familial bragging about the accomplishments of their children on social media can intensify the stress that Booker spoke of. The yearly college announcement season frustrated one parent enough to write an article for “Your Teen Magazine” detailing the four categories of parental bragging.

Social media’s influence also extends to students. Thousands of “College Decision Reactions” YouTube videos can be watched to experience other students’ euphoria or disappointment. On Instagram, CHS students will often post decisions on their personal page as well as the new “@CHS2021COMMITS” account meant to highlight the class of 2021’s achievements during a thus-far virtual school year. “With Instagram accounts like CHS Commits, there’s a huge social pressure to apply and get into schools during your senior year [that] are supposed to be good or known by your peers,” said Ella Moriber, ‘21. “There is a need in this town – and most others – to have immense pride in the school of your choice…It’s making school a personality trait you carry with you even before you go.”

Peter Hamel, ‘22, agreed: “[Social media] can make other people feel bad [when] someone posts about getting into a ‘good school.’ [These] selective colleges are made more competitive by the internet, with more people applying and more getting turned down.”

What is a ‘good school’? In terms of outcomes post-graduation, it depends on the career a student wants, as colleges have stronger and weaker programs that may appeal to a student if they know what field they want to enter. For example, Niche, a site which ranks and reviews colleges as well as K-12 schools and neighborhoods, ranked Syracuse University 146th in the 2021 edition of its “Best Colleges” list, while ranking the university 19th in the “Best Colleges for Communications in America” list. In terms of outcomes, careers in business benefit when schools have a broader network of internships and alumni, a feature that is often associated with more selective colleges. However, careers in science depend more heavily on standardized requirements to graduate, thus, as one study reported in The Atlantic found, the differences in earning across more selective versus less selective colleges was weak.

However, the goal of higher education for many students is not just career advancement. “I want to go to college for myself,” said Deborah Ode, ‘21, who will be a first generation college student. “I want a degree because I am privileged enough to get one and have more opportunities than my parents had.” Ode also commented on the socioeconomic disparity that is often widened by college: “Systematic racism and personal background barriers create an unequal society that leads to the generational wealth being passed on in wealthy middle and upper class white families. Old money continues to run our country, and creates a gap between those who try to reach towards the top.” 

Booker spoke to her experience with college selectivity. “[Selective schools] have us believe that acceptance into their elite institutions is a guarantee of financial access and maybe even happiness. I ended up wishing that I had gone to a less selective school but perhaps one that was a better fit, and that’s what I’m trying to pass along to my kids.”

Similarly to the taboos of acceptance rates are the finances of higher education. “I wish there was more transparency among parents about how they are paying for college,” Booker said. “It’s just so much money that I don’t think most high school students can even comprehend what it means.” 

Stacey Bachenheimer, a biology teacher at CHS, said that “being a teacher and a parent allows me to see the process from a more varied perspective since I have the opportunity to witness so many students work through this process with varying outcomes.” In terms of her own children, she “started talking about finances [with them] probably once they hit high school. Finances were coupled with some pressure associated with doing well in school. We connected better grades in school with more choices of schools to attend and the likelihood of getting more aid.”

Bachenheimer touched on a thought process that many of those considering college also stumble upon. Stanley Finlayson, ‘21, agreed with this sentiment, and said, “If one [college] is less expensive than the other, then I will choose that one.” However, Zakiya Smith Ellis, the former NJ Secretary of Higher Education, said in the “Bad With Money” podcast that “there were whole colleges who had their strategy as being, ‘We are going to artificially increase our price, even if we don’t expect people to pay it,’ and then what they did was they gave people bogus scholarships to make them think that they got a discount on the price.” The merit aid Ellis spoke to can often entice students into matriculating to a specific university, but it is not necessarily enough to cover the full cost of college.

Finances can be a factor in deciding when and whether to go to college. An anonymous parent noted that the possibility of taking a gap year was tied directly to the fees of higher education. “Our child knows that this is a lot financially, and we want them to be ready to go and make the most of their time.” Booker emphasized this point in concerns to COVID-19 and its economic effect. She said that “with the situation still in flux, we have started to talk about other options, like taking a gap year or perhaps going to school in Europe.”

Choosing alternative pathways post-high school elicits a variety of responses from peers. Finlayson, who is planning to enroll in the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) pending acceptance, saw a difference in reactions when telling others he may not have a traditional college experience. “[People] do not realize what [going to the USAFA] really means and that I am still going to college and receiving a degree. I usually choose not to tell people [that] I am applying to USAFA because it causes more confusion than anything else.” However, when Finlyason does tell others, he said “I am confident people’s views of me change when they realize I want to go into the military, an uncommon occurrence from CHS.” 

Moriber, who is taking a gap year, said, “When I tell people I’m taking a year off to live by myself outside of the country, most are supportive and some are judgmental. A lot of people don’t understand that going to school is not the only option and people benefit from life experience and learning about yourself before finding a career path.” However, about 33% of high school graduates choose to go directly into the workforce, due to financial reasons or job prospects.

Ode is also thinking of taking a gap year before college. “If I took a gap year I would most likely focus on my film company, Teniola Productions.” Moriber, on the other hand, officially decided to take a gap year during sophomore year, having planned to do so since middle school. “I think the college process is a huge money scam and barely benefits the students or makes sense,” said Moriber. “The school system in America, I feel, is unfair and takes advantage of students.” Moriber plans to live in Montreal with her cousin who goes to McGill, after which they will “see where the wind takes [them].” 

Post-graduation plans are difficult to make with the multitude of factors that go into one of the first real autonomous decisions high school seniors make in their lives. “For every door that we choose to walk through, whether it be a school or degree or career, almost every other door shuts in front of us,” said Finlayson. “It can be a stressful experience, you just have to trust yourself that you are making the right one.”

Additional Art By: M. Hankey

Design By: Jack Griffith