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A college reality check

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Esther Cepeda
June 14, 2012
— Itís commencement speech season, the time of year when sage elders pass on bits of wisdom to graduating college students ready to rip their mortar boards off and go change the world. But Iíll tell you who really needs the wisdom to tackle post-college life: high school juniors who will be seniors in the fall.

Those are the kids who have just taken the standardized college entrance exams and will soon spend time visiting campuses, either virtually or in person. Once the new school year starts, theyíll very quickly face major decisions about what colleges to apply to and make them based on vague ideas of what they want to be when they grow up.


Since no one called me up to preside over an end-of-junior-year soiree, Iíll try to enlighten readers who might want to slip this column into the hands of parents too harried to even think about the crush of college-related information thatíll be heaped upon them in the fall.


So here goes:


Dear soon-to-be class of 2013,


As you prepare to spend this summer gearing up for your big senior year, take note: You will soon have to make some serious decisions about college. And if there is one thing you must understand, itís that ďI didnít knowĒ is not an acceptable excuse for leaving college with few opportunities and insurmountable debt.


I really am saying this to scare you, because the reality is that the decisions youíll make about college will probably be the most adult choices with the most long-term consequences youíll commit to in the next decade.


Know that while you canít possibly be expected to decide now which career path you should devote the rest of your life to, just getting a college degree will not guarantee that youíll get a decent job.


This has never been completely true, and lately, itís a real long shot. The Associated Press recently crunched the 2011 Current Population Survey data and found that last year, a whopping 54 percent of those with a bachelor's degree under the age of 25 were jobless or employed in low-paying jobs unrelated to their selected career fields.


Know that your major matters. Give yourself a fallback position by taking some high school science and math courses next year. They can open up a world of scholarship and career opportunities in fields like engineering and technology if your first choice fizzles out. And those, if you didnít already know, are the careers that pay well -- roughly three to four times what youíd make as an early childhood teacher or religious scholar.


Know that should you choose to follow your bliss toward a calling with modest opportunities for financial enrichment, itís OK. Just be aware that if your heart takes you into social work, literature or music, it will be filled with purpose and joy, not money. Thatís fine, as long as you donít allow yourself to put your entire future -- and some of your parentsí future -- on the line by spending exorbitant amounts of money earning such a degree.


Which brings us to the high cost of college. Know that unless your parents can afford to pay for your education, you wonít get out of school without having to repay some loans. So before you commit to a school whose cost will require you to borrow heavily, know your responsibilities. Realize that whether you understand your obligations or simply assume itíll all work itself out in the end, you alone will be on the hook to repay all that money regardless of whether you graduate or not.


Finally, know that your final year of high school is the time to keep your wits about you.


Rare is the senior who isnít surrounded by a chorus of well-meaning teachers, counselors, friends and family members who are all too willing to dream big and assume only the very best-case scenarios while sharing your excitement about embarking on a new opportunity.


But this is the moment when (BEG ITAL)you(END ITAL) have to be the true adult. Donít bet on a better jobs situation in five or six years, or on politiciansí promises to make paying college debt easier -- now is the time to start to take control over what happens after youíve walked across the stage to receive your college diploma.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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