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Credit: Alice Choi

As we return back to our rigorous courses, busy schedules, and endless assignments post-spring break, it is very easy to see our schooling at Penn as a burden rather than the privilege that it is. For many of us, this is likely because we see college as a means to an end for our career goals — a stepping stone — rather than an opportunity for enrichment. In order for us to improve our overall relationship with education as well as the quality of our experience on campus, we need to stop seeing college as a determinant of success.

At many high schools around the country, the ever-present question at high school graduations is “Where are you going to college?” rather than “What will you be doing after graduation?” This culture often fails to acknowledge other alternatives which may be more fitting than college for financial, social, or professional reasons. Attending a high school where only 57% of students attended four-year colleges and 64% of students achieved less than 1000 on the SAT, I saw the implications of this approach first hand. Even in cases of students with lofty academic ambitions for whom college is a good fit, it often puts increasing pressure on the “where” of the university rather than on the “what” of their experiences. This end-all-be-all approach to college admissions is often palpable at schools like Penn where students feel as if their life is defined by their time on campus, likely contributing to our collective mental health problem

The perception of a college degree as a requirement is reflected in the increase in college enrollment by high school graduates over the last few decades. Around 69% of high school graduates now attend college; in 1960 this statistic was about 45%. While this increase may be encouraging for some people, the reality is that one in three students drop out before graduation, which makes the argument that college is a necessity and a good fit for everyone a bit lackluster.

This mentality has also contributed to our rampant student loan debt crisis. With college being viewed as an educational requirement for every graduating senior, the demand for a degree has become relatively inelastic, with universities being able to increase tuition to their current cost (see Penn’s $54,652 price tag). Students, then, often take out exorbitant loans to help cover the expense of tuition, and many end up failing to pay them back. Many of these defaulters don’t even end up graduating from the colleges they took out loans to attend, with college dropouts being 100 times more likely to default on their loans.

For the remaining 31% of the population who choose not to attend college or even for those who choose to finance their degrees by more affordable means, there is reasonable pushback to loan forgiveness programs like Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) recent proposal to President Joe Biden. It seems unreasonable that all taxpayers should bear the burden of a choice to attend college when many of them made a life and career while avoiding that financial burden. This is particularly problematic given households with above-median wealth owe the vast majority of student loan debt and that most debtors are primarily those who pursued professional graduate degrees. 

For many, falling into student loan debt results from a failure to see other opportunities available to them. As a result of the stigma surrounding vocational school options over pursuing a bachelor’s degree, there has been a decrease in skilled trades workers, which has caused a shortage in plumbers, electricians, and the like. In 2017, just 8% of high school graduates were enrolled in vocationally oriented certificate programs, a product of the pro-college movement of the '70s and '80s. In spite of trades falling out of fashion, society is still in desperate need of people to fill these roles, many of which can offer high-paying positions with the opportunity for entrepreneurship. There have, as a result, been efforts to reinvigorate trade programs around the country including J.M. Wright Technical School in my own town which was reopened in 2014 with state-of-the-art improvements. 

Altering the perception around college education is also important to improving the college experience itself. With high-pressure college admissions, our lives can feel as though they are defined by our experiences at Penn and its peer institutions. Rather than seeing college as an opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves, our interests, and our peers, we regularly treat it as a toxic checklist that needs to be completed before we move our tassels. 

There is no doubt that Penn has a high-stress climate that puts significant pressure on academic and professional achievements while lacking the mental health support to deal with those pressures. However, this problem is often compounded by our failure as students to view our time on campus as an opportunity for growth rather than a determinant of our potential success. 

By succumbing to the societal pressure to be defined by our degrees, we allow ourselves to be swept up in the feeling of obligation to participate in activities that are not enriching, determine our self-worth based on our grades, and take classes that are not rewarding. In viewing college as a necessity for everyone rather than a preprofessional learning experience for only certain people, we are easily victim to underappreciating or growing jaded to the enrichment we are receiving. 

College is not for everyone, and not every student should be expected to go to college after high school graduation. It is a privilege to spend four years of your life as a student, and it shouldn’t be the collective burden to finance that opportunity. For those that do attend college, by approaching their experience with that perspective, they can take full advantage of their journey while similarly understanding that their life is not defined by where they go to school or what they achieve on paper during their time on campus. 

LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Ct. Her email is