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Practically from the cradle, many U.S. children plan and prepare to attend college or university. Writer Maggie Dickmann sheds light on the national obsession and students’ experiences on campus.
Text by: Maggie Dickmann
Photos: Dickmann Family, Kovac Family, Ritter Family
Country: United States

rom the time they can walk, American children are encouraged to plan for their future, which for many will include college. Like one big helicopter parent, the United States is obsessed with its young adults attending university, or “going to college,” where it is hoped they will obtain a bachelor’s degree after four years. Some will spend two more years to earn a master’s degree, and others will study up to 10 years longer to obtain a doctorate. Higher education is part of the recipe for a high-paying job, success, and a good life. With music, television, movies, and books all singing the same tune, children cannot escape the notion that college is essential to their well-being.

College begins after high school graduation, but the preparation begins years earlier. One of the first steps in the college application process is taking the ACT or the SAT, standardized tests used by higher education institutions across the United States to measure students’ college readiness. Most universities require that prospective students submit their ACT or SAT scores when applying, and except in very rare cases, the schools refuse to accept students who fail to achieve a specific score. The minimum score varies among schools, with the most elite and prestigious requiring near perfect test scores to be admitted.

The ACT tests students in four subjects: English, mathematics, reading, and science. Each section is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, and then averaged into a final composite score. The average ACT score in 2016 was 20.

The SAT tests students in two sections, math and evidence-based reading and writing, plus an optional essay. The reading and writing sections are scored on a scale ranging from 200 to 800, and the math section is scored on a scale ranging from 200 to 800. The sections’ scores are added together with a total possible score of 1600. The average SAT score in 2016 was 1080.

Sam Dickmann, a junior at Shadle Park High School (Spokane, Washington) recently took the SAT. He felt like he was prepared for the mathematics and grammar portions, but was not a fast enough reader for the reading comprehension section. Even though he managed to land a fair score, he plans to retake the SAT next year. “I’ll definitely read some more over the summer so I actually have time to think about the questions and I won’t just rush to answer something,” he said.

Beyond the ACT and SAT, universities require that students fill out a hefty amount of paperwork, write essays, submit high school transcripts and grade point averages (GPA), and explain how any extra-curricular activities, such as sports, clubs and teams, volunteering, or even part-time jobs, have shaped them into well-adjusted young adults. Some parents push their children extra hard to get good grades and participate in loads of activities from a very young age. Each university application costs approximately $50 USD and takes several hours to complete, and students are urged to apply to multiple universities just in case they are not accepted to their first choice. Applying to college is a very stressful time for teenagers.

The process is tedious but exposes prospective students to what is expected of them at the college level. Before college, students have constant aid from parents and teachers; the college application is their first chance to take their futures into their own hands. Rita Ritter, a Central Washington University graduate and mother of two, explained that this is a vital life lesson for children to learn. “College is a less-controlled environment than high school, even though the curriculum might be the same,” she said. “It provides the opportunity to go away from home for a while, and to be responsible for your own learning before going into a career,” an experience she wants her daughters, ages 4 and 6, to have.

Patrick Davenport, of Grand Junction, Colorado, has a unique perspective on college life. He graduated from the University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Business Administration, and is a current master’s student at the Technical University of Denmark. Davenport said college is an ideal time for students to develop their own decision-making skills, manage their own time, and learn to take care of themselves. He contrasted it with college life in Denmark.

“[American] professors may monitor students’ progress very closely with regular exams, quizzes, and homework, providing frequent feedback, and in some cases even grading students on their attendance in class,” he said. “[In Denmark] the course grade is often based on only one or two exam scores with some of the exams being fifteen minute ‘oral exams.’ This means there is a little more pressure for the student to be responsible for their own learning.”

However, that isn’t to say that American institutions are easy. Abby Dickmann, Sam’s sister, and Morgan Kovac are second-year university students in Washington State. They attend different schools, but have similar experiences. Kovac said, “You always hear about how stressful [college] is, but until you go through it you can’t fathom how stressful it actually is. At the same time,” she acknowledges, “it’s not impossible, it’s just a different level of stress. It’s a different level of maturity that you have to go through to become an adult.”

Abby was always a good student in high school, achieving high grades and behaving well. What frustrated her most about high school was the constant badgering from teachers. She believes she works best when left to her own devices. She explained that she enjoys the freedom of college, but it can be difficult to buckle down and do homework with so many fun distractions, like a party or sports event, right around the corner.

“I don’t like someone breathing down my neck, telling me what to do, but now I have to breathe down my own neck!” Her brother Sam said he isn’t concerned with the level of difficulty of the schoolwork, but he’s nervous that the abundant socializing opportunities will be too enticing for him and his grades will suffer as a result.

Abby and Kovac touched on another important aspect of college life: while the newfoundindependence and added responsibility can be difficult, it’s fun, too. Dickmann recalled a recent weekend in which she and her boyfriend, Drew Gilomen, ventured about 50 miles across the border to Vancouver, Canada.

She said, “You get an extra sense of freedom [in college]. You can do things that you would need to get a bunch of permissions to do in high school.” Abby likes that she and Drew had the freedom to go to Vancouver on a whim, to set the rules and itinerary for themselves.

A particularly fun part of the college experience is living in the campus dormitories, or dorms for short. Most college students choose to live in the dorms for at least one year, with some schools even requiring freshmen, as first-year students are known, to live in them. For one big price, the students receive all-utilities-included, secure, furnished living quarters complete with a meal plan, and plenty of entertainment and social options.

Resident advisers, known as RAs, are available to help new students adjust to the dorm life. They provide basic counseling or mentorship, light supervision of dorm activities, and plan an array of social activities. The first week of my freshman year, our RA organized an “open door night.” From 6 to 9 p.m., all the students on the fifth floor were encouraged to keep their doors open and mingle. It was a great opportunity to meet the neighbors in a friendly, less intimidating setting. A decade later I am still friends with some of the fellow students I met that night.

A standard college dorm measures approximately 150 square feet and comes equipped with two twin beds, two desks, and two armoires, for two roommates. The dozens of students on each floor share a communal bathroom and possibly a small cooking area, but most students choose to eat in the campus dining hall. The dorms and dining halls tend to be where students make their best friends.

Over all, college in the U.S. tends to be a time for young adults to embark on a journey of self-discovery and independence. Most students leave college with a degree that will likely propel them in their careers, but college is also a time for young adults to examine what the world has to offer and to suss out possibilities for their futures.

Abby and Sam’s father, Brian Dickmann, spoke of his own college experience. He said: “I went to open doors—and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the field you’re in, but to be exposed to [the college-educated] segment of society… I did get some technical knowledge out of it, but [I went] more for the general educational experience.”

He said he wants his children to attend for the same reasons. He said, “Going to college shows that you can finish something. It’s a hoop-jumping thing, like everything in life.”

He explained that college graduates are likely to earn more money than their counterparts without a degree and have more options later in life.

“But also, college can be fun! And if someone’s having fun and they’re not hurting anyone and they’re learning a little something, isn’t that what life is all about, to have a little fun?”

Fact box

● In the USA, “college” and “university” are used interchangeably. Technically a university offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees and a college only offers undergraduate degrees. Usually a university is made up of a collection of colleges. It is more common for Americans to say “college” regardless of whether they are referring to a “college” or a “university”.

● There are 4,724 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the USA (2014).

● The average price for tuition, room and board, and school fees for a full-time student for the 2014-2015 academic school year at a public four-year institution was $18,632 USD. In 1984 the price was $3,682 USD ($8,238 USD when adjusting for inflation).

● The average price for tuition, room and board, and school fees for a full-time student for the 2014-2015 academic school year at a private four-year institution was $37,990 USD. In 1984 the price was $8,451 USD ($18,910 USD when adjusting for inflation).

● 69% of US high school graduates enroll in college immediately after graduating high school.

● The main difference between public and private universities is their funding. Public universities receive some funding from state and federal governments. Private universities do not receive any funding from state and federal governments and must rely on contributions from private donors. This is why private institutions are generally more expensive than public institutions.


High Degree of Difficulty

American children are encouraged from a very young age to plan for their future; for many, this means going to college. The words college and university are used interchangeably in the US. It usually takes four years to earn a bachelor\’s degree. Some people continue studying for two more years to earn a master\’s degree or up to 10 years longer for a doctorate.

A university degree is considered essential if you want a high-paying job, success, and a good life. The expectation that you will go to college not only comes from your parents and school teachers, it is also normalized in music, television, and books.

Before applying to university you must take the ACT or the SAT, standardized tests that are used by higher education institutions across the United States. Different universities require different scores, with the most prestigious ones requiring almost perfect scores.

Universities also require students to complete a lot of paperwork, write essays, and submit high school transcripts and grade point averages. It is also helpful to explain how your extra-curricular activities, such as sports, clubs and teams, volunteering, and part-time jobs have shaped you.

With all of the preparation and requirements, university may seem like a scary and difficult place. And although you do need to study hard and apply yourself it can also be a lot of fun and a place where you can make lifelong friends.



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