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Inside Out

The not-so-innocent question

Jeanne Sager
Posted 5/30/23

“So, where are you going to school next year?” It’s an innocent enough question, and one I’ve surely asked dozens of times over the years of high school seniors.  

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Inside Out

The not-so-innocent question


“So, where are you going to school next year?” It’s an innocent enough question, and one I’ve surely asked dozens of times over the years of high school seniors. 

It’s a question I’ve realized in recent years isn’t so innocent after all. 

Even as I slowly fill the storage spaces of my home with items my child will take off to college in the fall, it’s occurred to me that their path could have gone off in any number of directions and I’d be feeling exactly the same — struggling to accept the speedy passage of time, constantly wavering on the edge of tears and proud. Oh, so proud. 

My daughter is going to college because it’s what works for them.

For other high school graduates, it’s immediate entry into the work world, a career in the military, heading to trade school or perhaps a gap year that will work best. 

Why, then, do we continue to ask every senior where they’re going to school, when we know it’s not always the right choice for them? 

The reasons for choosing any one path are myriad, and opting out of college has only become more attractive in a nation where college tuition has more than tripled (when adjusted for inflation) in the past 50 years. 

If anything, the debates in the past year over student loan forgiveness have only revealed how little most Americans understand about the current state of college tuition. 

Data from the non-profit Education Data Initiative, shows the average physician graduating from college in America walks out the doors of a public institution with $115,000 in student loan debt if they’ve received at least $100,000 in scholarships. This is a public school educated graduate, aka a grad who took what’s often touted as the cheapest option, and who got the degree required for their industry. And again, this is assuming they received $100,000 in scholarships along the way.

Of course not everyone is able to garner that many scholarships along the way, so is it any surprise the average medical school graduate owes $250,990 in total student loan debt? And 73 percent of medical school grads have student loan debt?

If you’ve been thinking immense debt rests only on the shoulders of kids getting useless degrees at elite institutions, the numbers beg to differ. 

And yet, even the simplest questions we ask of our high school seniors show them that we as a society expect them to make the very choices that have been mocked mercilessly in recent years. 

“Where are you going to school next year?” is loaded with assumptions and judgments alike, assuming that they are going to college as if it is the only obvious choice and adding on the pressure that the answer “better be good.” The reactions to top tier universities are always markedly different from the news that a kid is going to the community college up the road, even though the community college up the road offers up similar classes at a much lower price point. 

We expect them to load their shoulders with debt, and then we act disappointed when they opt out. 

It’s enough to give a kid whiplash. 

So I’ve stopped asking the question I realized I shouldn’t be asking. 

Instead I offer a few pieces of advice to this year’s seniors, my own child among them:

When people start telling you what they got their degree in as evidence of their expertise, don’t assume they’re an actual expert. A degree is something, but it isn’t everything. 

If people ask where you’re going to school next year, own your answer, no matter if it’s an elite institution, a community college, a trade school or none at all. Your path through life will be meandering, but what matters most is that you’re in the driver’s seat. 


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