My school recently hosted its parent-teacher conferences for two days and because my classes are grade 11 and 12 students, many parents had questions about planning for university and what I would recommend.
I recommend not worrying or thinking about university at all. Do not do anything in high school because you believe it matters for university. I can’t be more clear than that.
Let me clarify and stipulate the caveats.
I tell all the parents I speak with that I only know anything about American universities and, really, only California universities in particular. If their goals or desires are to go elsewhere, then it is up to them to inform themselves about what is needed and what stress levels they are willing to take on for the sake of entrance to those other universities.
However, once your desire is to go an American university and California more specifically, I strongly believe that we have enough choices, pathways, and opportunities that young people in high school should really stop worrying and stressing themselves to breaking points about which university they will go to. A fairly typical schedule for a high-achieving high school student looks like the below,
6: 15 A.M.: Wake up, get ready for school, and grab a quick breakfast
That is nonsense. There is no reason to grind through a day of drudgery like the example above.
This is because California has a three tiered public higher education system that includes the California community colleges, the California State University (CSU) system made up of 23 campuses, and the University of California (UC) system comprised of 10 campuses.
The majority of high school students can get into a community college with little to nothing in the way of grades, test scores, or even a diploma. Here are the admission requirements from the online admissions portal,
California community colleges are required to admit any California resident possessing a high school diploma or equivalent. Additionally, California community colleges may admit any nonresident possessing a high school diploma or equivalent or anyone (resident or nonresident) over the age of 18 without a high school diploma or equivalent who, in the judgment of the board, is capable of profiting from the instruction offered (my emphasis added).
These colleges allow students to complete the first two years of university and then transfer to a four-year institution, such as the CSU and UC systems mentioned above. Many of these campuses have preferential transfer agreements that take the community college graduates first before admitting others to the university. Some even have “transfer admission guarantees”,
Six UC campuses offer the Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) program for California community college students who meet specific requirements.
You Have a Choice
All of the above means you have a choice as both a student or a parent. You can kill yourselves trying to earn a perfect 4.0 GPA or even higher to get into schools like UC Irvine as a freshman or you can attempt to enjoy the high school experience. Choose classes you have interests in and study what excites you. Don’t take the tests seriously other than as personal insight into how you are doing relative to some external benchmark that may or may not be important to you. Pursue learning for its own sake and develop an innate desire to gain new knowledge and discover new paths to meaning and purpose in your life.
The decision to treat high school as an opportunity for relaxed exploration and discovery will go much further than the choice to participate in a rat race of “high achievement” measured by grades in areas that may matter nothing at all to you as an individual.
It Doesn’t Matter Where You Start
Ultimately it doesn’t matter where you begin higher education after high school. Some evidence even points to the fact that it doesn’t really matter where you end. According to two economists from Princeton and the Mathematica Policy Research, Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale respectively,
students, who were accepted into elite schools, but went to less selective institutions, earned salaries just as high as Ivy League grads. For instance, if a teenager gained entry to Harvard, but ended up attending Penn State, his or her salary prospects would be the same.
All of this points to the idea that much is determined by the individual student herself and not the institution she eventually attends. However, if the name on the institution does matter to you, it is typically only the last institution you received a degree from that will matter.
Beginning at community college before transferring to a CSU to complete your undergraduate degree with a decent GPA and good professor rapport gives one a great opportunity to then apply for a master’s degree at an even more prestigious school. Leveraging that undergraduate experience and degree to get into a master’s program at a UC or elite private school like USC or Stanford will still allow one to claim they went to one of the top universities in the nation.
The only difference between taking the path outlined above and leaping straight into an Ivy League or UC is that you won’t have forfeited many happy life years grinding through classes with the sole intent of a better future. You will also have saved thousands of dollars in the process. And when people ask you where you went, you will still be able to answer the name of your dream school because it doesn’t matter where you start, it only matters where you finish and, more importantly, what you do with the education you received along the way.
P.S. On a personal note, I went straight into CSU Channel Islands upon graduating high school and attended two different community colleges during summer school in order to complete my BA in economics in three years. I then decided to stay a fourth year to complete a BS in mathematics. After two years working abroad and teaching overseas, I returned to California and applied to master’s programs at the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of San Diego (USD). I was accepted to both and chose to attend USD in order to save money on tuition and rent.