Going to college today is a very different experience than it once was. The cost has soared, and the great recession cut into many of the assets that were supposed to pay for it. This week All Things Considered is talking with young people about the value of school and about their choice of college.
What do you get from a college education? And, given today's eye-popping costs, is it worth it? We're following a group of college seniors through this academic year and asking them those questions.
At the University of Maryland's College Park campus, just outside Washington, D.C., we caught up with two of the seniors we met last September: Rhys Hall and Karie Cheung. Like all the students we're following, they are both from Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. As two undergraduates among 27,000 students, they had never met. So, we introduced them.
Rhys Hall will be the first college graduate in his family after the spring semester. He's African-American and the son of a single mother, a sociology major and very active in campus affairs.
Karie Cheung graduated last week, at the end of the fall semester. She's the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the first in her family to go to college. Her major is community health and this past semester she spent most of her time doing an internship. She also had a job on campus to help pay for college.
And she has spent a lot of time looking for her first job after college: "Actually, the other day," says Cheung, "I found a social media job that required seven years of experience. And you know, social media kind of, barely, didn't really exist seven years ago."
Hall has ambitions of earning a Ph.D. and has been preparing graduate school applications to several universities.
"I'd like to come back to Maryland," he says. "If I do, I'd probably consider American studies, as opposed to sociology." For every other school, Hall is applying to sociology departments.
Hall relished studying at what he calls a "Research I" university — a category (now officially called RU/VH) made by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to indicate institutions with a very high level of research activity. There, he saw the "impact that being the creator of knowledge can have for the next generation."
"Being able to work with the faculty here has shown me that you can have a consultant position, you can work at a think tank, you can write for a paper or you can go into academia and actually be a professor."
Hall's goal is to become a research-based professor at a research intensive institution.
The Job Search
Cheung started her job search in places like Seattle. But reality quickly set in. "The more planning I did, the more I realized that was only a dream, for now," she says. "Right now I really need to focus on what is feasible financially."
So she has limited her job search to the "DMV" area: D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It hasn't been easy.
"A lot of entry-level jobs, they're really tricky," she explains. They tell you that you need at least two or three years of experience, but you can't gain that experience unless you are at an entry-level job."
She says one must be organized and "love colors" to find a job: "Your Excel spreadsheet will look very colorful."
Cheung says she spends about two hours every day searching for key words: health educator, community health educator, health specialist, wellness specialist.
"Keep in the back of your mind, that as much as you're involved here," says Cheung, "you do have a life after college. In order to have that life be successful, you have to start preparing for it now in college."
Karie Cheung continues to send out job applications. She's also planning to take the Certified Health Education Specialist examination and she's thinking about nursing school.
We'll continue to check in with these students, plus the other students we met last September, as the week and the year continue.
How We Did This
This week, we're talking to students who went to high school in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. It's considerably more diverse than the rest of the nation: Nearly one-third of its residents are foreign-born. It's also more highly educated: with more than double the national average for bachelor's degrees.
Jessica Cheung contributed reporting for this series.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What do you get from a college education? And given today's eye-popping costs, is it worth it? We're following a group of college seniors through this academic year and asking them those questions as well as some less weighty ones.
How've you been?
RHYS HALL: Everything's been going well. It's been quite the interesting semester thus far.
SIEGEL: That's University of Maryland senior Rhys Hall, who will be the first college graduate in his family after the spring semester. He is African-American, the son of a single mother. He's a sociology major and he's been very active in campus affairs. Like the other students we're following, he's from Montgomery County Maryland just outside Washington.
KARIE CHEUNG: Hi, I'm Karie.
HALL: Karie, Rhys, nice to meet you.
CHEUNG: Nice to meet you, too. I've heard a lot about you actually.
HALL: As yourself.
SIEGEL: As two undergraduates among 27,000 students, they had never met, so we introduced them. Karie Cheung graduated last week at the end of the fall semester. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the first in her family to go to college. Her major is community health, and this past semester she spent most of her time doing an internship. She also had a job on campus to help pay for college. And she has spent a lot of time looking for her first job after college.
CHEUNG: Actually, the other day I found a social media job that required seven years of experience. And, you know, social media kind of barely didn't really exist seven years ago.
SIEGEL: Rhys, with ambitions of earning a Ph.D., has been preparing grad school applications to several universities.
HALL: I'd like to come back to Maryland. If I do I'd probably consider American studies as opposed to sociology.
SIEGEL: American studies as opposed to sociology.
HALL: Yes. I have been receiving suggestions that state if you would consider - and this is only for Maryland - if you were to stay at the same graduate school where you completed your undergraduate studies it would be a good idea to diversify yourself and consider what other majors that are aligned with yours can have to offer. So Maryland is the only school I'm considering American studies for. Every other school I am applying to sociology.
SIEGEL: Rhys, do your advisers and professors, do they - are they encouraging about academic positions one can get with a Ph.D. in sociology?
HALL: Very much so. They often ask me do you just want to have the letters near your name or is there an actual goal you have with that? For me, being at a research one institution I've seen the impact that being a creator of knowledge can have for the next generation. So for me, my goal is to attain tenure and to become a research-based professor at a research one institution and publish articles based in search I conduct.
SIEGEL: And, Karie, you'll be looking for a job in the spring. For you, is a job going to mean a job right here around the University of Maryland or around Washington, D.C.?
CHEUNG: Well, I also was applying for jobs out in Seattle, out in Washington. That's where I want to end up. But then I started to research and the more planning I did the more I realized that that was only a dream for now and right now I really to focus on what is feasible financially. So I have limited my job search to the DMV area - D.C., Maryland, Virginia.
SIEGEL: So that's it. If you don't have to assume the cost of rent then you can afford the kind of job that you're most likely to get. To go out and find a place to live in Seattle would be much more expensive.
CHEUNG: (Laughter) Yes. And also a lot of entry-level jobs, they're really tricky. They tell you that you need at least two to three years of experience, but you can't gain that experience unless you are at an entry-level job.
SIEGEL: Well, I mean - listen, you two, you are much closer to what's happening with your friends out there as they approach the job market than any study we can get from any labor economist. So what are you hearing? I mean, what do people say about the real world out there?
HALL: Well, first about something Karie just said a couple seconds ago I thought was great. We talked about the adult life. I believe you stated it was a dream that I'm realizing for now can't be the case. And when we have these dreams that we don't think they're feasible we just get rid of them. We say that's not possible. I'm never going to do it. I like how you said for now I'm going to try to get a job in this area. It's not - the door's not closed yet. It's just I can't open it quite now.
SIEGEL: And, Karie, do you ever hear from, say, your parents, you've done so much work with health care, have you thought about medical school?
CHEUNG: Oh, well, up until last year, my parents thought I was still going to be a doctor or a nurse. So, you know, when you say community health and your parents who didn't grow up here in America, they hear health and they think, oh, hospital, oh, medical school. Oh, you're going to be a doctor. And it's very hard to explain to them, especially when you're limited in the words that you know in their language, what your passion is and what you're going to do. And even though you're not going to make as much as a doctor, you'll still be helping out in the same sense. While doctors are curing diseases, you're here trying to prevent them from happening in the first place.
SIEGEL: Well, good luck to both of you, and it's great to see you again.
HALL: Thank you.
CHEUNG: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: One update since that conversation - Karie Cheung continues to send out job applications. She is also planning to take the Certified Health Education Specialist Examination, and she's thinking about nursing school. Tomorrow, two Montgomery County students who headed to New York City to pursue a higher education in the arts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.