Li: College decisions are being made with inadequate experience

Grant Li, Op-Ed Contributor

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It’s relatively well-known that the brain isn’t fully developed until you turn 25, and it’s easy to see why that’s true. We see teenagers constantly make poor choices everyday with terrible consequences to bear. All this is made infinitely worse when we give unprepared students difficult and important decisions to make.

When I was heading into the college application season, I was 17. And like most other kids around my age, l had a few things to decide: where to apply — if at all — picking a major, and then where to go. These decisions have huge implications, and while some students make the right choice, a concerning portion do not.

As a transfer student, I can tell you I certainly did not make the right choice. I went from going to a school focused entirely on STEM intending to major in that area, to being undecided here, somewhere in the realm of humanities. Yet even on the second round when I was applying to transfer, I felt I was still wholly inadequate to make this decision.

I went to a public high school in a rural town of 28,000, and our school system was substandard. Bad teachers made it difficult to develop a passion for any subject, and I often found myself in complete confusion over whether I actually hated math or history because the teachers were dreadful or the topic itself wasn’t something that interested me.

That very dilemma plagued me in both rounds of college applications. Under-resourced schools like mine didn’t have common extracurriculars like olympiads, mock trial, debate, science fairs, Model UN or even good sports programs. It wasn’t possible to have a diverse range of experiences before going to college. Where other students might have had a hint of what they might like to do in the future thanks to those activities, I had none. These problems cloud the judgements of students in high schools across America.

The situation becomes worse if you cannot figure out who you are and where you belong. It’s not the lack of understanding that’s the bad part — arguably it’s a good thing — but the fact that the college application system demands that you know is the issue. The first step of making a college list is a lot easier if you actually know what you want out of your college experience.

The personal statement then requires a lot of clarity about yourself that many seniors in high school, lacking perspective, struggle to write. Meanwhile, the supplemental essays ask why you want to go to that particular university, and you want to say something like, “The economics department’s focus on getting students involved in undergraduate research is very compelling,” but you don’t actually know if you want to do economics or research for that matter. Simultaneously, you want to avoid the typical platitudes and pandering that comes with, “Your school is really good, it’s pretty, and it’s near Chicago.”

The most plain example of this is when they ask you to choose which school or college within the larger university you want to apply to, each with their own unique majors. Switching between those schools isn’t always easy and picking the wrong one can box you in.

There are innumerable factors that can confound the decision-making of a high schooler, but the numbers alone will tell the story. In fact, some 37.2 percent of students have transferred between universities. Forty-five percent of those transfers then change schools again, and none of these statistics portray those so disillusioned they drop out, or the huge portion of students who dislike the situation they’re in but don’t choose to transfer.

Unfortunately, not everyone is privileged enough to change their situation. Transferring isn’t easy, and there are many costs to be borne out of the process whether it’s the years wasted, the strain on mental health, or the money lost.

Considered with the enormous price tag of college, the question begs — why are teenagers thrusted into costly decisions rather than being eased in?

There’s a lot wrong with the education system and the industry around higher education is even worse. However, bad decision-making is one particularly undiscussed and big patch of the massive, ugly, dark under-belly of higher education. The entire system should be reworked to give students more leeway and time to explore before settling down on one option over another. I don’t know what that ideal system looks like, but we have to start the conversation somewhere.

I’ll go first: I suggest removing the question of which school or college in the university you want to apply to. Let’s just assume we’re all undecided.

Grant Li is a Weinberg sophomore. They can be contacted at ligrant@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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