If you teach high school, and especially upperclassmen, you’ve probably fielded some questions from students along the lines of "why it is important to go to college?" and "what should I study in college?" These are important questions to be able to answer. After all, college is an expensive investment, and it can be overwhelming for a teenager to make predictions about a career path and lifestyle that's years down the line.
That said, it’s important to open up meaningful conversations with the students you teach or counsel about the importance of going to college and of choosing an appropriate major. While we know students are getting input from friends, family, and online communities, high school teachers and counselors have the unique position of working with many students. Your unique perspective gives means your input is often weighted heavily as students consider the answers to their college questions.
Why is it important to go to college?
Chances are that your students have been exposed to a lot of rhetoric emphasizing the importance of going to college. Much of that information revolves heavily around getting a good job and making a comfortable living. I think it’s important that students also hear from other teachers and mentors about why college will be beneficial for them, especially for reasons other than financial ones. So below are a few reasons you can tell students that college will be good for them and a few pointers to give them when deciding what to study.
They’ll gain independence
Everyone's upbringing is different, obviously, but by the end of high school, most students are jonesing to get some time away from their parents and guardians–whom they’ve likely been cohabitating with their whole lives!
There are other ways for young adults to head out on their own when they come of age, but college offers one of the most natural transitions for them to experience "the real world.” Stress to your students the freedom and excitement that accompanies living on or around a college campus of their choice.
The unique living arrangements of college allows students to gradually learn the ins-and-outs of living as an adult: cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and so on, while still having a support system in place from roommates, resident advisors, guidance counselors, and others.
They’ll expand their horizons
In short, college is a great way for young adults to get out of their home towns, states, or even countries, and expand their horizons. Moreover, higher education provides an opportunity to meet a large and diverse number of individuals and expand social circles.
Most colleges and universities offer all kinds of opportunities for students to do volunteer work, gain experiential learning through projects and field trips, and study abroad–all of which provide students with valuable life experience that might not be gained otherwise.
And even when students decide to stay local for college, they’re introduced to a large network of instructors and peers. This opens them up to new ideas in the classroom and new opportunities in a familiar community.
It can be hard for students to conceptualize the unknown, while others may be nervous about a new environment, so encourage them to do college visits, if possible. This can help them get a sense of the cultural landscapes of their different college options. College visits can be highly inspiring and motivating for students, and can help them determine the right fit in terms of both academics and campus culture.
They’ll engage in meaningful learning
This can be a harder one to sell students on, especially ones who may struggle academically. But the truth is that the right college fit will provide students with an opportunity to learn in the ways that are most meaningful for them. For some students, this may be in very small, discussion-based classes, while for others it may be in hands-on, project-based workshops.
Additionally, most liberal arts colleges offer (and even require) a wide range of gen-ed and elective courses that provide students with a impressively comprehensive education, which is much harder to acquire through self study. In this current digital age, with so much knowledge at their fingertips, I often have students ask why it’s important to go to college when there is so much education to be had for free via the internet.
It’s a good and fair question, but I always offer up some examples of great classes I took in college that I’d never have had the opportunity to otherwise. I was an English major, but some of my favorite and most meaningful classes were: piano, evolutionary biology, and art history. Go figure!
They'll have better job opportunities
There's no arguing with the numbers: those with a college degree have better access to the jobs of their choice, and have significantly higher earning potential than their less educated peers. While getting a well-paying job without a college degree is certainly not impossible, students should be prepared to continue their education beyond high school in some way. For the majority, that means college.
The recent piece “College Degrees Lead to ‘Good Jobs’” in Inside Higher Ed, cites a recent Georgetown study that found “an increasing share of well-paying jobs have shifted to workers who hold four-year or associate degrees,” and that “the bachelor’s degree remains the ‘gold standard,’ for finding well paying job."
The importance of earning potential may not quite resonate with teenagers who have not yet supported themselves financially, but you can stress the qualitative benefits of having better job opportunities. After all, a job seeker with a degree is much more likely to have a choice when it comes to where they are employed, and what they do on a daily basis, than someone with a more limited education.
What should I study in college?
Once a student understands the value of pursuing higher education, the next question is often along the lines of "what should I major in?" When discussing this with your high schoolers, remember that it's more than likely a student will change his or her major at least once during college, and that the average student changes majors 3 times during a college career! Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have an anwer ready:
A subject they love
First and foremost, encourage your students to study something that they actually want to study. While plenty of students may feel pressured to choose a major based on earning potential or career prestige (doctors and lawyers, anyone?), it’s also important that they choose a major that interests them. Students who select a study that aligns with their interests are more likely to stick with their chosen course and do well in the related classes.
The major a student selects will also inform their career options after school. A student who dislikes their major and finds a job in a related field post-college is unlikely to find that her feelings have suddenly changed for the better now that a paycheck is involved.
Additionally, students who major in a field they enjoy will find themselves surrounded by likeminded classmates and instructors. This can foster further interest in the field, and help students proactively explore the ways in which they might apply their studies beyond the classroom.
A subject they excel at
Maybe it sounds obvious, but encourage students to study what they’re good at – provided, of course, that they take interest in the subject!
While this may sound overly simplistic, choosing a major doesn’t have to be a reductive process based solely on skill. Encourage your students to think about what fields use the skills that they are interested in developing, or already posses. For instance, a student who is good at math doesn't necessarily mean they should enter college as a math major, per se. But what fields that involve a good deal of math might pique their interest? Perhaps architechture, data science, or physics would be of interest. Or say a student is great at analyzing literature–they may also be well suited for studying psychology as it tends to involve critical thinking, analyzing studies, and taking deep dives into a single topic.
Along these lines, encourage students to reflect on their qualitative skills and value systems when choosing a major. In what field may a highly empathic student excel? A Data-driven student? A student with excellent writing skills? This is where teachers and counselors can really help students brainstorm their own strengths and interests and help them come up with some potential majors accordingly.
A subject in an expanding career field
Though we've just discussed the importance of majoring in a field that a student is a) interested in and b) good at, it is necessary to also consider employment prospects post-graduation. This is where reports on expanding fields can be of use, especially since they often highlight career paths that a student might not otherwise encounter in day-to-day life.
For example, according to thejobnetwork.com, among the most in-demand jobs for 2018 are fitness trainers, financial advisors, computer software engineers, nurses, pharmacy technicians, and skin care specialists. Encouraging open discussions about the changing employment landscapes and expanding professional fields is a worthwhile exercise in the classroom. Introduce your students to the many resources available when looking at job growth projectsions to help them find the best college majors for the future. With a little creativity, most students should be able to pick at least one career option that looks promising.
Help Your Students Be as College Ready as Possible
There’s plenty of talk in high schools about college readiness, much of which centers around standardized test taking and building a better college application, but conversations that dig into the "why" and "what" behind college can ensure students are actively thinking about how their actions now are setting them up for success later.
When students have a clearer sense of why it is important to go to college and what to go to college for, they will make more informed (and often more economical) choices, generate stronger college applications, and likely find greater success in their collegiate endeavors.