It is 1:14 PM and I am at my third high school of the day — Cleveland High School, in Portland Oregon. Colorful post-it-notes dot the classroom. Expectant 11th grader eyes peer at me. On the whiteboard in front of the class, I have just finished writing: “Design Your Ideal College Workshop. Part I: Goals + Problems.”
I turn to the class. "Raise your hand if you have been to a college visit or toured a college campus already."
Every single hand in the room shoots up.
“What questions do you ask on these tours?” I ask.
A litany of hands shoots up. “What is the student to teacher ratio?” one girl blurts out. “What majors do you have?” says a boy. “What student clubs do you offer?” I’ve heard these same questions dozens of times.
I take a couple more, and then ask: “How many of you” — I pause for dramatic effect — “have asked yourself ‘what is your goal for college?’” Silence. Two tentative hands rise up.
In the last year, every time I visit a high school to get the word out about Minerva, I facilitate a workshop, where students participate in a combination of free writing, discussion, and group work to design their ideal college. By now, I have led this workshop more than thirty times. Whether it’s a poor urban city charter school in Dallas or a tony private school in Los Angeles, one thing stays the same: students don't think deeply or thoughtfully about their college search. The types of questions students ask read straight out of the metrics for ranking colleges in the US World & News Report. Prestige and cost reign supreme.
This seems problematic for one of the most important decisions of students' young lives. It is not that the questions students are asking are unimportant; it is that there are even deeper questions to ask first. Thinking about majors without thinking about goals is like preparing to buy a house and asking: “How many rooms does it have? Are there bay windows? Is the backyard artificial or real grass?” but never asking the question in the first place: “what kind of life do you want to live?” (How does a house support that lifestyle?)
The most problematic aspect for me is this: in an increasingly globally competitive world, students no longer have the luxury of groupthink. The conveyer belt of schooling no longer leads to a stable and well paying job, a house with a white picket fence and two and a half kids, and a retirement with full pension, as it may have fifty years ago. Instead, sooner or later, students will have to face these tough introspective questions. Perhaps these questions hit them sophomore year of college, in the middle of an organic chemistry exam, when they realize that the nineteen years that their parents spent grooming them to be a surgeon was for naught; they don’t want to be a doctor. Perhaps these questions will hit them in their late thirties, when they realize that toiling away at a Wall Street firm and climbing the corporate ladder made them a lot of money, but not a lot of self-fulfillment. Perhaps it will be later still.
Sooner or later, students will have to ask these deeper questions of themselves. They will have to think about their core values and how they want to live by them. They will have to consider what their unique talents are and how they should cultivate them.
As many students start the college admissions rat race again this summer and fall, let us make sure they ask at least one of these questions early: “what is your goal for college?”