Chris Gray, Ph.D.

Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

Last week, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action in higher education admissions, deeming it unconstitutional.  Then, the Court struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, determining that he had overstepped his authority.  If you work in or follow higher ed policy at all, these back-to-back rulings can feel quite heavy.  

In many ways, these two decisions have moved higher ed into the spotlight (some might say that it’s under attack), and this has had me reflecting on a conversation that I had a few months back.  A person whom I admire and respect asked me to explain why, given how expensive a college education is these days, high school grads should do it?  What’s the value?  Sending teens from high school to college sets them up, in most cases, for a future of some financial struggle; how is that a good idea?

I’d like to share my answers.  

First, the pursuit of higher education offers numerous benefits that can have a transformative impact on the lives of young people.  Statistics repeatedly show that high school graduates make more money during the course of their working lives than do those who drop out; the same is true of college graduates, who make more money than do those who stopped their education after high school.  Education does result in monetary advancement.

Perhaps most compelling for those of us who have dedicated our lives to education, college affords students with the chance to grow intellectually.  Teenagers who pursue higher education gain exposure to a broader range of subjects and develop critical thinking and analytical skills sooner: the very traits that our employers tell us they most value in new employees.  College-level courses nurture intellectual curiosity, foster a love for learning, and prepare students for academic challenges later in life.  Complex questions require advanced thinkers, and colleges help to produce those thinkers.  

Another benefit that I find especially important is early career advancement.  Students who complete their college training at a young age are able to enter the job market earlier and to gain a competitive edge. They can acquire specific skills and qualifications that open doors to higher-paying job opportunities earlier as well, which often translates into a more stable and prosperous career in the long run.  This is not in any way to denigrate the adult student who returns to college later in life but to point out that, logically, the earlier someone receives specialized training, the longer that person has to use and capitalize on the skills acquired.

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One of the most significant differences between high school and college is the diversity of perspectives offered by the latter.  Since high school attendance is determined geographically, students in any one school tend to have at least some similarity of life experiences.  Since colleges attract students from around the state, country, and world, they are almost always more diverse places.  There is a value in encountering other perspectives and world experiences; it allows students to grow both personally and socially in ways that were heretofore unavailable. They learn to navigate a larger and more diverse community, interact with colleagues from various backgrounds, and build important social and networking skills. This early exposure to a college environment helps develop maturity, independence, and adaptability – again, all skills that will serve them well in the workforce. 

Finally, I submit that a college education introduces new high school grads to a type of personal fulfillment that is new and exciting.  After years of following a state-mandated curriculum, students come to college excited by the freedom that it allows them to explore their passions, discover new interests, and gain a sense of purpose. By following their educational aspirations early on, these high schoolers can build a strong foundation for a fulfilling and meaningful future sooner.  They are endowed with the opportunity to take charge of their future.

So why come to college right out of high school?  For me, the ultimate answer is simple:  college provides new high school grads with a head start in their academic and professional journeys, empowering them to excel in their chosen fields and lead successful lives. By embracing the opportunities offered by higher education at a young age, those who choose college earlier can lay the groundwork for a bright and prosperous future and set about making that into a reality as soon as possible.  Here at EC3, we are so excited to be a part of that journey and are looking forward to welcoming members of the class of 2023 to our ranks!