By Alive Teens Jatin Mathur and Sanjana Ramrajvel

The Alive Center has written this blog post as part of its messaging plan throughout the school year. This month’s topic concerns after high school plans, which typically involve strong pressure to attend college. This blog has been split into three main parts: defining and analyzing the issue, advice for both parents and teens, and options besides college. The Alive Center teens hope you find this blog informative and guiding.

Defining and Analyzing the Issue

There is an immense focus on college among today’s youth. Whether it is participating in clubs, playing sports, volunteering, learning an instrument, getting a job, or earning a leadership title, teens try to do everything. The end goal? Acceptance into a top-of-the-charts, brand name school and a fancy degree. The worst fate? Not going to college at all, wasting that endless potential they are supposed to have.

The root of this enormous pressure is our hesitancy to stray from the perceived norm. To step one foot outside of the bounds of “normal” comes with a great deal of judgement, whether real or perceived. Why take three art classes and opt for early dismissal when all you hear about is having a college-app-ready transcript? So, teens restrict themselves in order to stay in line, to fit the prescribed mold for success. While not directly told so, today’s students are guided by the perception that some paths automatically produce more success than others, ultimately causing a tunnel-vision effect in which a few select paths seem to be the only golden tickets to a bright future.

So what makes one path “more successful” than another? And how does this commanding force manage to influence the majority of today’s youth? Alive’s answer: the media, universities, schools, parents, peers—in other words, the system. A typical school year cycle may look like the following: US News releases a yearly report that clearly enumerates which schools are top-tier. Universities amp up their outreach in order to reduce the admissions rate and better their standings on next year’s report. High schools try to showcase themselves by increasing their average ACT/SAT score and highlighting the number of students that will be attending elite schools. Parents urge you to work harder than your peers, to participate in activities that will make you stand out. Peers compete with you and drive you to match their accomplishments. However, the system also includes you. No matter where the pressure comes from, the final choice is still ultimately yours. However, because teens refuse to settle for anything less than what the system has defined as “the best,” they are just as much part of the system. Your choices influence the choices of others. If all of the seniors at a high school apply to top-tier schools, will the juniors at that school be any different when it is their turn? This system, by nature, is self-perpetuating. While this analysis may seem a bit cynical, the purpose here is to show the “other side,” if you will. Does the media care about its readers? Do universities care about their applicants? Do schools care about their students? Do parents care about their children? Do peers care about each other? In varying degrees, but absolutely. However, it is important to see that this process has a certain dark side, which is exactly where the pressure derives from.


Alive’s Advice

Overcoming such large-scale forces is incredibly difficult. As a general ideal, teens should follow the path is the best path for them. The trouble with ideals is that they tend to be unrealistic or impractical. To address this concern, the Alive Center would first like to reframe the notion that elite universities are an indicator of future success. In a bombshell study by researchers Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger at Princeton University, they found that after factoring in SAT scores and GPA, “estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero.”[1] The researchers had two important conclusions: 1) if a student was accepted into an elite university but opted to attend a less selective university, it made little to no difference in terms of future salary; and 2) if a student with an SAT and GPA comparable to other elite university applicants was rejected from those universities, his future salary would be, on average, identical to that of the applicant who was accepted. The inevitable conclusion is that what matters is the student, not the school.

To be clear, elite universities certainly do provide a top-of-the-notch education that any students who attend there should take advantage of. The misconception is that this prized education is limited to only those universities. Furthermore, another important point to stress: the pressure to attend college is not a simple, universal thing. It varies from person to person depending on their ambition, background, and interests. The Alive Center’s point is that as a whole, this pressure is frighteningly, and unnecessarily high. Therefore, whichever universities you apply to, know why you are applying there. Whether it be an Ivy or a public school, a big-name or a small, local college, each should have a valid, well-thought out reason behind why it is the best choice for you. And no matter where you go, always remember that the most important thing is taking advantage of the plentiful resources around you.

While this may sound great on paper, the Alive Center would like to offer more concrete ways of working within the existing system to reduce the stress that stems from college pressure. Perhaps a better way to counteract teen stress is to begin at the familial level with teens and their parents, the people who can most easily implement change.

To parents

For one, make your child know that they can be successful at a wide range of universities (or taking a different path which is addressed below). Doing so will greatly lessen the pressure they feel from you to succeed. It will also better equip them to handle that pressure from other sources. Second, try to change your dialogue. Simply stating the well-intentioned but overused “find your passion” can actually have a negative effect. Many teenagers don’t know what their passion is, or they feel pulled in multiple directions. Urging them to identify what they’d be willing to do for the rest of their lives without providing them the tools to do so is futile and just another source of stress. Strive to be a supportive resource for them as they continue to discover who they are.

Additionally, truly emphasize that it is fine if you don’t know what your passion is. In fact, emphasize that most college students don’t. In her book The Undecided College Student: An Academic And Career Advising Challenge, Virginia Gordon, Adjunct Associate Professor of Education at Ohio State University, found that 75% or more of college students change their major at least once.[2]  Make sure your kids know what one size does not fit all.

To teens

Remember to be honest with yourself. If you don’t like something or if something is bothering you, admit it. Although it is sometimes necessary to do what you would rather not, admitting the fact that you dislike it can offer emotional and mental clarity. This clarity can help put the issue in perspective and help you think of better ways to approach it. Lastly, always try to vocalize your feelings with someone you trust, whether it be a parent, mentor, teacher, or friend. Talking things out and getting them out of your head is much more likely to put your problems in perspective and clear your head.

And stay open! It is perfectly normal if you do not know what you want to do yet. Think of post-secondary education as an opportunity to further discover who you are and what you love.


Options besides 4-year college

Make no mistake, most institutions recommend that students attend a traditional 4-year university. According to a prediction on job growth by Georgetown University, “by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.”[3] That being said, the Alive Center would like to list out a few alternative options that have plenty of prospects.

The first option is trade school, which teaches skills related to specific jobs. Traditional schools, by contrast, make students take classes in all kinds of disciplines not related to their major. Professions that have trade schools include welding, mechanic, HVAC, culinary, and nursing. There are severable notable advantages to trade school. First, the majority of programs are only two years, although many are shorter than even that. This means you can start earning even earlier. Second, the average cost for trade school is around $33,000 total, which is the same as the average cost for a single year of traditional universities. Third, you can make more than your peers at traditional schools. According to an article on trade schools by US News, “in 2014, the average mechanic’s wage was a little over $37,000 a year, which beats out most [salaries of professions involving a] liberal arts degrees. As of 2013, the average salary for a registered nurse was nearly $69,000 a year, which far surpasses a lot of traditional degree fields”.[4]

Another option is community college. At traditional schools, the majority of classes in your first two years are part of the general education curriculum. You can do the same at a community college, but at a much smaller cost. For example, Tulsa Community College has a program called Tulsa Achieves, through which “full tuition and fees are provided for every high school senior, public or private, who graduates with a 2.0 grade point average and commits to begin college the fall following their senior year.”[5]

A third option is joining the military, specifically through a program like the Army ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). First and foremost, in ROTC you are a student and not enlisted. Typically, students complete four years of classes at a university that has an ROTC program (over 1,100 in the US) and then they serve as an officer in a specific branch of the military. Having taken all these classes, you can major in anything from engineering to nursing. It is important to realize that you can be a part of Army ROTC for two years without making any commitment. Financial-aid wise, “Army ROTC offers two-, three- and four-year scholarships, which pay full tuition and fees, include a separate allowance for books, and a monthly stipend of up to $5,000 a year.”[6] However, if you accept a scholarship you must commit to that branch of the military. Lastly, military experience proves to be valuable in the workplace. Besides clear demonstration of leadership and character, there are also economic reasons for companies to hire veterans. This includes reimbursement “for up to half the Veteran’s salary to cover certain supplies and equipment, additional instruction expenses, and any loss of production” through the Special Employer Incentives program.[7]

These are just a few of the options available to high school seniors besides college. Others include taking a gap year or getting a job for some time. Traveling while on a gap year may bring you new experiences that broaden your mind, which ultimately helps you better know yourself and what you want to do. All of the above options will still be there even several years after you have graduated high school. Deciding what you are going to do after high school is undoubtedly important, so make sure you are knowledge about about the options you have.

Our message to teens: There is no predetermined path to success, so follow your own.


Further readings:


  1. Dale, Stacy, and Alan B. Krueger. “Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the CareerUsing Administrative Earnings Data.” NBER. The National Bureau of EconomicResearch, June 2011. Web.
  2. Gordon, Virginia N. The Undecided College Student: An Academic and Career Advising Challenge. Charles C. Thomas, 2015. Print.
  3. Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl. Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University. PDF.
  4. Bondar, Mel. “The Financial Case for Trade School Over College.” US News. US News, 12 Apr. 2016. Web.
  5. “Tulsa Achieves.” Tulsa Achieves. Tulsa Community College. Web.
  6. “Army ROTC FAQ.” US Army. Web.
  7. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration. “Veterans Opportunity to Work.” For Employers – Veterans Opportunity to Work. US Department of Veteran Affairs. Web.