Overcoming Students' Perceived Barriers to College

By Amanda Miller, College Advising Corps

This article originally appeared on the College Advising Corps blog and is reprinted with permission.

“I don’t want to go,” says Ramon, his accent pronounced but words clear. “I’m gonna join the army. They’re gonna pay me and train better than any college will.”

“Besides, it’s too expensive,” chimes in Eddie, a particularly snarky sophomore. “Who wants to spend the rest of their lives paying off student loans?”

Other students nod silently in agreement.

“Yeah,” Julia proclaims unexpectedly from the back. “My parents didn’t go and we ain’t rich but we a’ight. My uncle went and he don’t even use his degree.”

One by one, I write their objections on the board.

“Don’t like school”
“Too expensive”
“Grades aren’t high enough”
“Better off working”
“Useless degree”

As my dry-erase marker sweeps across the whiteboard, the students continue to air their grievances with a system that—they feel—pushes them towards college without listening to their own plans.

We live in a generation of skeptics. And, I love it. Below are common objections to college going and my approaches to helping my students see the value of going to college.

Assertion: “My grades aren’t high enough to get in anywhere.”

Counterclaim: College admission is attainable. Period. As long as you meet the minimum requirements you can apply, and you may be surprised by where you get accepted. If you don’t currently meet the minimum requirements for a four-year college, then community college, which is a great option, has open admission.

Case in Point: Margaret is an undocumented student with a 2.6 GPA. She has been accepted to three four-year institutions and has the option to attend the local community college.

Assertion: “My test scores aren’t good enough.”

Counterpoint: Test scores are one of the many factors that determine your admission. Admission rubrics that deemphasize test scores, super-scoring, and test optional schools have all arisen due to two facts: (1) test scores are not the best predictor of collegiate success and (2) some students simply do not best exhibit their best abilities in a standardized test.

Case in Point: Hayley is a straight-A student in AP classes who continually scores below average on the SAT and ACT. We kept her struggle with testing in mind as we worked to build her college list. She applied to several selective colleges that valued other student characteristics above test scores and a couple test optional schools. All but one school admitted her!

Assertion: “College is too expensive.”

Counterclaim: College can be made affordable. Yes, the cost of college has risen astronomically over the past two decades. By the traditional model of applying to college—apply to one or two colleges, get accepted, choose (if applicable) and figure out how to pay the sticker price—college would be out of the question for most families. However, if you rework your approach by applying to 4+ colleges (including one or more affordable options), look at the financial offerings, and make an informed decision, you are more likely to find an option that doesn’t incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt. As for paying back loans, you now have many options of repayment, and paying them back can be done easily with the bigger paycheck after earning your degree!

Case in Point #1: Me. I graduated from Davidson College—a cost of attendance of $60,000 per year—with no debt. How? I applied to seven colleges known for meeting financial need and had a stellar application: as a first-generation, low-income student from semi-rural Tennessee, I was valedictorian with near-perfect test scores and 1,000+ hours of documented volunteer service. I was a bit of an “over-achiever”.

Case in Point #2: But what about those students who don’t have “stellar” applications?

Schoolwork was not my sister’s thing. Spelling was a struggle; essays were like pulling teeth; and don’t even start with algebra. However, throughout school, Anna worked hard and maintained an A/B average. She applied for every available scholarship and earned scholarships for singing, designing, and theatre work through college. With a summer job and year-round work-study, she will graduate with just under $15,000 in debt—well-below the national average—and will likely pay it off before she turns 30.

Case in Point #3: Bradley is going to welding school, and Zach will begin training to become an EMT starting this fall. Both have their entire tuitions covered by the FAFSA plus money for gas and groceries!

Assertion: “College degrees are useless unless you’re going to be a doctor or lawyer or something.”

Counterclaim: What do you mean? Reading, writing, and critical thinking are all valuable skills necessary for all fields of work. Besides, going to college isn’t just about the degree. (Although, for the record, having a four-year degree is often a prerequisite to apply for many jobs.) College shapes your perception and life path. Amazing networking opportunities, life-changing travel through study abroad programs, academic exploration of subjects you want to study, and lifelong relationships are all direct results of a college experience. It’s not the piece of paper that marks the value of college – it’s the peripheral skills you gain and the opportunities that stem from those you meet along the way.

Case in Point: I have a degree in political science. What have I done with that, you ask? I’ve interned at the World Young Women Christian Association in Geneva, Switzerland and a well-known DC think tank. I’ve traveled to more than ten countries, studied three languages, and conducted independent research in Japan. I’ve worked as a teacher, tutor, stagehand, and now college advisor. While it’s true that I don’t regularly discuss health care policy, Somalian piracy, or Machiavelli’s The Prince, I do read, write, and think critically on a daily basis, and college certainly sharpened those skills far beyond my skill level as a high school graduate. Likewise, every job I’ve had since high school was directly impacted by my decision to attend college.

Assertion: “My parents didn’t go to college and they’re doing just fine.”

Counterclaim: Great! But they are not you.

Case in Point: Neither of my parents attended college. They are hard-working, productive citizens with their own small business. I am very proud of my parents, but I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. I decided to attend college because I loved school and wanted to travel and study more about how the world worked before joining the workforce. Because of my decision I’ve had a greater number of opportunities aligned with my interests and a greater income than either of my parents have seen in their lives. And I work for a non-profit organization!

Assertion: Why would I spend all that money to go to college when I could be working instead?

Counterclaim: Excellent point. By deciding to attend college rather than work full-time, you are not only incurring the costs of attending college—tuition, room, board, books, etc.—but also forfeiting a few years worth of wages you could have been earning if you had joined the workforce instead. However, the benefits of college—higher earning potential, an exponentially larger professional network, memorable experiences, friends and opportunities—extend far beyond the few years you spend in college. Not going to college may be more financially beneficial in the short run, but five, ten, and 40 years after graduating college, you will continue to reap the financial and intellectual benefits of having a college degree.