I wrote “education activist” as part of my Twitter description. I thought it was a bit pretentious of me until I thought about the distinction between my brand of college counseling and the other stuff. I also was speaking to someone else about what I do, so I thought it would be worth making that distinction here. Part of this I already discussed in my post, Perpetuating Privilege, but I wanted to partition it out a bit more so it’s super clear here.

This first post in this series is called “Mo’ Money” because I am really focused here on the strategy of getting a marketable degree in a finite amount of time with as little debt as possible.

The first thing to realize is that I work with all students, but I focus on those who traditionally do not have access to this type of college counseling: students of color, low-income, first generation, undocumented students, and/or girls (a recent addition that I will discuss in a later post). I would like to make that first distinction because most likely the above groups cannot financially or socially afford the current model of college admissions where these types of students end up at a public university with little aid and drop out within the first semester because either life happened or support did not.

This is what I mean:

In California, one can attend one of the many campuses within the University of California or California State University systems. I love the UCs and CSUs BUT the reality is that the state is broke and schools are taking the hit. This means that the current time to graduation for UCs and CSUs is six to eight years and one receives very little scholarship aid. Even the athletes at these Division 1 universities are not receiving anywhere near full-funding packages. So take a UC at about $30K per year for six to eight years and we’re talking about a 24-to 26-year old with $180,000 to $240,000 of debt. As adults, think back to when you were 26. If you owed $240,000 at that time, would you have made the same decisions? Again, for the type of students I mentioned above, we simply do not have that luxury.

Also understand that the above implies these folks are making it to twenty-six without incident. Again, in these communities, the odds are against that happening. Someone will get sick. Your family will need you to go to work. Your family will need you to leave the dorms and move back home to help watch a family member. Those are the realities. And those realities mean the above students will not graduate at all, let alone in six to eight years.

The other reality is that odds are the type students I mentioned above did not attend a great high school that prepared them for college and beyond in terms of soft skills. In college when they don’t have reminders from all of the adults around them, chances are really high that they simply do not know how to ask for help, so they don’t. The other chances are they will be the only Black, Latino, indigenous, undocumented, poor, first generation student in their classes and they’ll feel that raising their hand to ask questions in that huge lecture hall with 300 other students will only affirm the stereotypes all of the students around them may hold of them. So they don’t ask questions and fail. More on that one in a later post (I’m looking at you, Oklahoma University and the long list of universities with race incidents that only serve to further alienate small populations of under-represented students as I think about that.)

Unlike the public universities in California, a huge component of the ranking calculations for private schools is that they matriculate their students in four years with degrees that set them up for great jobs or graduate school. Stanford has an extremely high matriculation rate to maintain, meaning they will do A LOT to keep students there and graduate them. They will also do A LOT to make sure you don’t embarrass their good name when you are in the world. And in a world where economists are saying that one needs a master’s degree at minimum, the fact that 75% of Stanford graduates pursue graduate or professional degrees is HUGE.

At a university such as Stanford, a student will have more tools at their disposal and will be at a campus that actively recruits more students of color, first generation, etc. But let’s talk about money again. Stanford is $50K per year and a student will most likely finish in four years. Stanford reports that 99% of all students receive some aid in the form of scholarships, not loans. Stanford also reports that of all students who need aid, they will receive 75% of that in scholarships, the rest in loans. This means that students will graduate at 22 years old with at most $50K of debt. If they really played their cards right, they will have finished an MA or JD at 24 or 25 with no additional debt with a job where they can actually pay off that undergraduate debt.

Just to really drive the point home, compare that 26 year-old public university-graduate with the $240,000 in debt with a Bachelor’s degree with the 25 year-old private university graduate with a law degree with $50,0000 debt. I feel like the answer is obvious and as I mentioned in the first part when we think about social justice college counseling (as I like to think of it), instead of just being obvious, it is imperative to counsel students in this way.

One quick note about community colleges, especially in California: of the type of students I have been discussing, about 13% in California actually successfully earn a Bachelor’s degree after transferring and they spend four or more years at the institution to which they transferred. For the most part, going the community college route in this state just adds more time.

In order to counsel students in this way, it is also critical to understand that the way one gains admissions to the large public university versus the private liberal arts college is VERY different. It is actually a bit fascinating: while large public universities don’t have stellar graduation rates, they don’t mind students doing a lot of that work in high school. So students can come in having almost specialized in a specific subject. I feel it’s disingenuous to ask a fifteen year old to make a decision about a course that will affect the rest of their life: how do they know if they like Philosophy if they have never taken it? Creative Writing? Advanced Calculus? Students don’t have to declare a major for a while, but they are applying to specific colleges so having a demonstrated interest in one thing is important to those large public universities.

But those small liberal arts colleges want the exact opposite. They don’t want the 18 year-old engineering expert (and if that sounds ridiculous, it should). They want the kids who like Psychology and Spanish and Physics because, as economists also say, over 60% of the jobs that this generation will have doesn’t even exist yet; they need them to be innovative and create the jobs they will one day have, also keeping in mind they will one day go to graduate school where they can really specialize. I like to think about it as something Steve Jobs said in his biography. He took enough programming classes to know that people weren’t messing around. But the Apple Store is modeled after how he felt when he read Moby Dick. He wanted the experience of opening an Apple package to tap into some aspect of one’s psyche. As much good or bad as we can say about Steve Jobs, he was definitely using those skills he learned in all those classes he was auditing throughout his career and that’s what employers are looking for today, regardless the field.

When I advise a certain type of student, I am advising them in the direction of Student B because something we, as a public, don’t quite grasp yet, Student A who can afford that debt or has folks who can afford that debt (although, in my best Suze Orman voice, no one can) is a luxury, AND it is damaging to all of us to think it such limiting, dichotomous terms: you have business people who can’t interpret meaning from people’s words and scientists who don’t think about race and gender. But yes, I advise Student A types too but I do it. More on why and how later.

One last thing: after talking to dozens of admissions counselors at various types of universities, the application from a public versus private high school student to a public versus private university should look different. Actually, the reason that kid who everyone thought would get into all those great schools and didn’t, is because s/he DIDN’T consider or know how to apply to the different type of schools. While we all know students who seemingly fit one type of school but got into another, think of those as anomalies. As someone who prefers something more certain, I like to go with systems and thinking that have more guarantees.

So the short end of it is, it would be unethical of me, and not in the spirit of social justice, to say to first generation, low-income, undocumented students, students of color, and girls, to take a route I know will not benefit them, or the community, in the long run. And being in a position to choose a route one is passionate about rather than has to do out of financial necessity is that route.