As colleges acceptance rates continue to decline, more students should turn to options other than 4-year universities

May 31, 2023 — by Neal Malhotra and Kavya Patel
Graphic by Tara Natarajan
There are multiple pathways to college other than going straight after high school.
There are many paths to take after high school to continue education, contrary to popular belief.

As college acceptance rates for 4-year universities get lower and lower, it has become increasingly challenging for students to be accepted into popular in-state institutions like the UCs and even previously “safe” state schools like San Diego State University. Many who are unable to get into their preferred in-state institution are also turning to increasingly expensive — and still competitive — out-of-state schools. 

However, in their pursuit of prestigious 4-year colleges, many students often overlook other post-graduation plans, such as taking a gap year or going to a community college, options that allow students greater leeway to explore their interests without suffering the exorbitant costs of traditional universities. 

Gap years allow students to take extra time figuring out what they want to pursue, travel or find a job. Community colleges, while less conventionally reputable than 4-year schools, also provide many of the same general or distributional requirement courses for the first two years for little to no tuition. Since some find the prospect of living with their parents after high school unappealing, students can also choose to attend colleges in other parts of the state, such as Santa Barbara Community College, allowing them to have more independence while enjoying lower costs.

Unfortunately, despite there being available options other than immediately going to a 4-year university, the pressure to do so remains overwhelming, especially for students at competitive schools in the Bay Area. Taking other routes instead of going directly to a 4-year institution are  viable options that communities like Saratoga have surrounded with a sense of stigma. We as a community need to be more accepting and normalize taking these alternative paths.

Choosingto go to a 4-year college can have crippling financial consequences for families: Over the years, more and more families have been relying on loans in order to attend prestigious colleges, causing their financial burden to accumulate. 

Although Saratoga families are generally in a higher income bracket and may not necessarily need to take out tens of thousands in student loans to pay for college, the skyrocketing college prices combined with ineligibility for financial aid can still leave a sizable dent in family finances.

 By the end of college, some students will have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars of tuition. Though some private colleges offer scholarships, the practice is scarce and often not enough to make a substantial difference in tuition — in fact, many elite private schools such as the Ivies and Little Ivy liberal arts schools do not offer merit or athletic aid at all. 

External merit scholarships like the National Merit and Coca Cola scholarships are extremely difficult to obtain, and cover a relatively small portion of tuition as a one-time lump sum — for instance, the $20,000 Coca-Cola Scholarship would only cover about 25% of the out-of-pocket cost of attendance for one year at a school like MIT. Even if students end up going to an out-of-state public school, the tuition is substantially higher and often parallels that of a private university.

In addition, going to college right after high school can pressure  students to choose a major they aren’t passionate about, a decision that often determines a student’s lifelong career and one that deserves careful thought. 

Gap years are a solution to this problem: They serve as a period of self-reflection for students to figure out what subjects they are genuinely interested in, away from being influenced or pressured by parents and peers. This will also allow them to prepare to do well in college and avoid burnout.

Taking a gap year also allows students to build their resume, which can help to make their application stronger if they want to reapply to their desired schools. For people applying to prestigious universities, having an extra year’s worth of activities and achievements can set them apart from other applicants.

However, many students might not want to take a full year off. For these students, community colleges can help students ease into college-style education and adult life while being significantly cheaper than 4-year counterparts.

While the path to community college is significantly frowned upon here because community college has typically been associated with students who don’t excel in high school, community college helps students who want to pursue careers that require costly graduate school, such as medicine, law or dentistry. Attending community college allows them to save their college funds for graduate school rather than pay exorbitant undergraduate tuition for the first two years of their college education, consisting primarily of general education courses.

As long as a student successfully completes the general education credits that community colleges offer, they are guaranteed transfer admission into UC Davis, UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside or UC Santa Barbara if they wish to continue their education. Transfer rates from community colleges to UCs after two years are very high, and although Transfer Admission Guarantees aren’t applicable to all majors, they are a favorable outcome for many students.

Those two years in between give students the opportunity to focus on other aspects of their life, like socioemotional development, while still continuing their education. 

As a community, we must be more supportive of previously unconventional academic pathways: We need to prioritize wellbeing and fit over prestige and the outdated idea that success can only come from a traditional 4-year college experience.

Tags: college
5 views this week