Jeff Abernathy: Are you ready for college?

As a college president, I’ve never really needed to defend a college education. Most people believe that earning a bachelor’s degree is a good investment. But with costs rising at most colleges, I find myself talking about value more often.

The value is in dollars and cents: a high school diploma holder can expect to earn about $1.3 million over a lifetime, but a someone with a bachelor’s degree, on average, will earn $2.3 million over a lifetime, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Because I’ve seen a college education transform students’ lives, I believe everyone should have access to a college degree. Sometimes students are ready when they graduate high school and sometimes they aren’t. To be successful in college, students should think through these questions before committing.

What are your goals, and are you ready to commit the resources necessary to achieve them?

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Regardless of whether a student is attending a two-year community college or seeking a four-year bachelor’s degree, education is a commitment, financially and emotionally, much like a full-time job. Think about why you’re headed to college, what this investment will mean to your future, and how you can make all your responsibilities contribute to that goal.

Will you need to balance a job along with college? Nearly 14 million Americans work while taking classes; that’s 70 to 80 percent of college students. While that can create scheduling challenges, academic advisers can help students factor this into their planning.

However, it’s ultimately up to the student to establish priorities. If you work part-time or full-time, can you find a position that builds on what you’re learning in the classroom or will enhance your resume? And will you have enough time to dedicate to your education? A developmental college experience should include more than just taking classes. You need to be realistic about your time and commitments, or you risk burnout and missed opportunities. Be realistic about what you can reasonably take on.

Are you only here for the social scene?

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Institutions offer students a wide variety of social programming – everything from Greek Life to intramural athletics to various clubs and events. Students at most campus aren’t short on things to do and they will tell you they subscribe to the “work hard, play hard” philosophy. While some students thrive with additional social outlets, other students have a difficult time balancing these activities with their studies. College is an expensive endeavor if you’re only here for the social scene.

Are you ready to live independently?

For students who reside on campus, mom and dad aren’t going to be there to wake you up, remind you to study or tell you what you can and cannot do. For some, this independence is refreshing. For others, it’s stifling. College is all about growth and becoming more independent, but students need to be mentally prepared for life without a parent or guardian being present every day. If you aren’t ready for that kind of a commitment, you may consider a gap year.

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A gap year is simply a semester or year where students spend time doing something meaningful or fulfilling to them. It could be a volunteer project in their communities, time spent abroad traveling and learning about other cultures, or a job that will help them determine whether the career they’ve been considering is right for them. The Gap Year Association states that no two gap years are alike, but most gap years have similar themes: experiential education and challenging one's comfort zones.

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Are you ready to deal with adversity?

College provides a safe environment where students learn to fail and pick themselves back up. The nature of a college curriculum is to expand one’s horizons and learn to deal with adversity and a diversity of viewpoints. By its very nature, college is not insulated. It is meant to challenge and disrupt and help students grow as citizens.

If I didn’t believe in education’s transformative value for individuals, I wouldn’t be a college president. Many students discover potential they never knew they had when challenged in school. But we also must understand that under some circumstances, college might not be the best fit for a student right after high school. Students and their families will do themselves a service by ensuring they’re ready to commit to higher education — and for the right reasons.

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