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The Price of Ignorance

The lives of two high school juniors could be significantly improved if they don't continue to remain ignorant

Photo of Anumit Sasidharan
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Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with two high schoolers who attend a public school in south Brooklyn. Let's call them Abby and Betty. Both hailed from lower income families whose parents didn't attend college.

My first surprise came rather early as I asked them about college in general and what their plans were. While I assumed most of the country would have serious-if not concrete plans about college and already have started preparing for the application process, their situation was rather different. Neither of them had even thought about college yet and Abby was certain she wasn't going for sure. When asked why, she replied "There's no way I can pay for it!" (That's a cleaned up version - the original had a few expletives.)

When I asked if loans could be an option, Abby was once again adamant that no one would give her a huge loan. This got me asking about how much they thought a college education would cost. "I dunno. Hundreds of thousands of dollars?" - While this was true in case of some elite schools, the average tuition costs for an in-state student at a public university is about 9000 dollars a year and the least expensive universities in New York state are about 5-6000 dollars a year. Betty was equally unaware thinking costs would definitely be in six figures.

Neither of them were aware of the various funding and scholarships available either. The overall trend seemed to be one of lack of awareness. Makes me wonder about the number of high school students who don't end up in college just because they think it's beyond them. A college degree doubles the earning potential of an individual - and there are millions missing out on this due to nothing but ignorance.


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Photo of Patricio Toussaint


Great contribution. I think a lot of people really dont know about all the opportunities they have. Also they have a stereotype that college is always really really expensive that if you do some research and you are really perseverant, you can get great options. How can we transmit these type of basic information to others?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Anumit, thanks for sharing these insights although I think they uncover more issues than the one you seem to point at: why don't they do a bit more work to find out the information?
The insights from your interview also show how for high school kids, in particular from low-income families, access to information is difficult. Or to put in other ways, what are their causes of their ignorance? Isn't only the fact that they don't do the work? Check Izabela's post that shows how little students know about costs of education:
Contrast the case of these 2 high schoolers with the interview done by Inna:

Check also these 2 posts that highlight the social issues related to getting access to information and attempt to support better students:
This interview is also illuminating:

On your surprise of them not doing more research, I would like to take a devil's advocate perspective:
Is it that easy to do when you're 16 or 17?
How do you know what to do? Who should help them? Parents? School counselors? others?
Shall they really spend their times prepping for college rather than doing deep learning (again Inna's interview is illuminating here?).
On your last point, regarding the obvious positive impact of college education, there have been a lot of contrasting posts during this challenge. Here are 3 (but there are many more):

Looking forward to seeing how these insights can inform the next phase.

Photo of Anumit Sasidharan

Most people I grew up with were similar to the student Inna interviewed, which was why I guess I was a bit surprised during my interview. And coming to access to information, nearly everyone today have smartphones and free WiFi all around town. But I think the main problem with certain areas and communities is the lack of support. These students just weren't in an environment where they were encouraged or even talked to about college. And consequently didn't end up looking for the information that was out there.

And yes, thinking about the future and making smart decisions at 17 does require a lot of help from parents, counselors etc. I had in fact asked them about their high school counselor, and they were of the opinion that he was mostly useless and didn't like talking to them. I am still unsure why they had this attitude toward education in general but I presume it is due to certain influences they had growing up.

Talking about if college is actually worth it - while there are a lot of cases where the combination of an expensive school with a non-paying major can be problematic, for most cases, the data seems to show that college definitely has a positive impact. This is a great article on it, highlighting when college works out and when it doesn't:

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

this is why empathy is important as it allows us to uncover perceptions, expectations and needs that are different than those we have.
You are right that lack of support is key and it has emerged from a few posts (including some I shared with you). See for example the comment by Adrian:

I don't think access is only about having a smart phone or free wifi. If you spend time reading many of posts highlighting the complexity and the difficulty of accessing information on colleges and financial options (see for example ) , you would realize that "access" is not simply about having an internet connection.

Thanks for sharing the article. I'll read it. I know these statistics on the topic but there are also divergent views and experiences - from students. I think it is important to take them into account too. From what I've read during this research phase (on OpenIDEO and in parallel), I think that it points to the fact that there is not "one model that fits all" when it comes to the experience, the needs and the outcomes. It's worth at least keeping an open mind for these other options when moving to ideation.