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The Luxury of Choice

I’m a big fan of College Signing Day. Not the official sports-related one, but the national one that celebrates students everywhere making their college decisions. It makes me reminisce about my time as a college counselor with Bottom Line and brings to mind some of my favorite student memories—moments of joy, of celebration, of hard work paying off, and of great possibility.

On Monday, though, this Chronicle of Higher Education article by Eric Hoover reminded me that although many of my memories of former students are great, there are more than a few that are frustrating, discouraging, and even heart-breaking.

While I was reading this poignant article, these students came rushing back to me. Those who dropped out of touch and out of the college application pool. Those who missed important financial aid deadlines or paperwork. Those who didn’t get into their dream school or didn’t get that big scholarship. Those who were forced to take a break from college due to extenuating circumstances. But perhaps most upsetting, those students who did everything right, used every resource, fought their way through every obstacle, and still came up short.

These were students who got into a dream school and couldn’t afford to go. Or worse still, students who had several options and could afford none of them, so either ended up scrambling to enroll in community college or delaying college all together. I also had students find a way to make a top choice work or simply be responsible and go to their most affordable option, only to still be derailed by finances when they couldn’t afford books or a laptop or had to continue a job to support their families, with an end result of poor academic performance.

The article underscored the importance of college counselors, but it also served as a good reminder that they can’t solve every problem and remove every roadblock for students. Making a college application list is hard work—it requires teenagers to think about affordability, attainability, and fit, and how those all intersect. And making a college choice is even harder, because you have to balance rational decisions with gut feelings, which is a big ask of anyone, let alone a high school senior.

One of the students featured in the article hit the nail on the head: “I don’t want to be logical when it comes to something that’s so important to me. I don’t want to, like, settle.”

This resonated with me—too many times, I worked students who were not given the luxury of choice free from the burden of finances and had to ultimately settle. And sure, you can give them the pep talk and praise them for making a responsible choice and assure them that it will work out for the best if they engage with the opportunities at the school. Watching their shoulders fall or their face force a smile, I felt like a dream crusher. And sometimes, that’s what I was, even if in the long run, the students grew to love their schools and were so relieved to graduate with less debt. In that moment, they didn’t necessarily feel like the decision was theirs to make, and that’s a damn shame.

I feel lucky that even though my high school guidance counselor was abysmal, I had college-educated parents and I attended a school that participated in Upward Bound. Finances and financial aid did come into consideration when I was choosing where to apply and then where to attend, but I didn’t end up choosing the least expensive option. And seriously, part of the reason I chose my college was because on accepted students day, the campus was so beautiful—I was a teenager, afforded the luxury of making a gut decision.

Choosing a college should be an exciting, momentous event. It saddened me to read that description of the divided class, half in celebration and half resenting the celebration because it reminded them of their own murky futures. We need to do better by these students to help make higher education a reality for them, not an opportunity that is just out of reach.