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College students hold power, options for the first time in a long time

University of Washington freshman Byron Chen walks on the campus among the nearly 30 cherry trees nearing their peak bloom Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

There is a lot of uncertainty for the future as businesses start to reopen and life will have to shift to a new normal, even looking ahead to the fall when students should be returning to campuses. What should parents and students be considering when it comes to college next fall?

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“On one hand, they’re asking the same question we’ve all asked in previous years about the value of higher education and what we’re trying to accomplish, but adding to that mix this issue of the uncertainty,” said Todd Rose, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the co-founder of Populace.

“Even if I go ahead and say yes and send my kid, pay the deposit, are they going to get the experience that I thought they were going to get?” Rose asked. “And if not, we need to have a conversation about how much we should be paying for what we’re getting.”

Rose recently wrote an op-ed for Time magazine titled, “Don’t Commit to a College This Year Just Because You’re on Deadline. You Have More Control Than You Think.”

“We’re so used to a system where we exist for the university and they control the whole process, and then they would decide whether we’re worthy to be there,” Rose said. “And the truth is, I’m telling you from the inside perspective and out, that these same universities who used to look at trying to get more people to apply so we could say, ‘Oh, we rejected so many people,’ are now scrambling to just fill seats.”

For the first time in a long time, the consumer has the power. He has heard from a number of families who reached out to colleges and universities and said they weren’t going to pay the non-refundable deposit, and most of the institutions were understanding in their response.

This is not to say that Rose recommends against college. He recognizes it can be beneficial in many ways, and has benefited from higher education himself.

“Obviously, I’m someone who benefited immensely from it, but the idea is, if we step back and think, what is the point of all this?” Rose said. “And there could be a number of different purposes, but obviously we want kids having experience, getting the knowledge and skills they need to launch them into a career that is meaningful to them.”

Today, there are more ways to gain the skills you need for a career than by going to college. Rose said he’s heard from a number of CEOs who say the college diploma isn’t necessary anymore.

“But we’ve got to have that conversation,” he said. “And if the college experience and the four-year diploma is still truly necessary to have the kind of career you want, then so be it.”

Rose completed his undergraduate degree at Weber State University, an open enrollment school that he said helped improve his life.

“What really worries me the most is that in the effort of this chasing prestige, we have given up on the fact that there are so many institutions that do God’s work in terms of helping people like me be able to better our lives,” he said. “We’ve made everyone chase the same one-size-fits-all model, and it’s not OK.”

“When I see universities, instead of saying how do we take some risks? How do we use our endowment? How do we reduce the cost? How do we increase flexibility for families going through a global pandemic? When we’re not even behaving the way that cable companies or insurance companies are doing for their customers, something’s wrong,” Rose added. “And if we’re not willing to stand up to that as parents and the general public right now, when we have more power than we’ve ever had, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves if the system stays as it is in 2021 and beyond.”

For the class of 2020, Rose encouraged students to remember they have options. The coronavirus is going to change how schools and universities operate this year and into the future.

“We’re not telling the public the truth about just how much power they have. If I’m a student and I don’t like my options, I would re-apply,” he said. “I would absolutely consider, if I’m gonna take online classes, … there are some really good, inexpensive places to take online classes and it does not require you spending $45,000 a year.”

Universities may have previously said they won’t take you next year, but Rose thinks they’ll reconsider because enrollment numbers are so low.

“I would love nothing more than this fall for every university in the country to open up with students on campus because that would mean that we’ve solved some bigger problems, right?” Rose said.

But that just isn’t likely.

“It’s OK to just stop. It’s OK to say, look, I need to understand what I’m getting here because I do have other options,” Rose said. “And even if it means working for a year and doing that gap year … it’s OK. You will have more options. Your options are only going to expand over the next 18 months.”

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While some jobs do require a college diploma, Rose said that mindset is changing, too.

“What we’re seeing is company after company saying, ‘Well … it never really was about the diploma. We just needed a sign that a student was prepared, right?'” he said.

“You got to weigh for yourself if you care about the procedure, care about the experience, whatever. That’s fine. I’m not saying don’t go to Harvard or don’t go to Purdue or whatever, but make it based on what the value of higher education is for you,” Rose added.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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