What do you get from a college education? And, given today's eye-popping costs, is it worth it? Through this academic year, we're following a group of college seniors from Montgomery County, Md., and asking them those questions. Among those students are three women on the verge of real life.
Alejandra Gonzales is an in-state student at the University of Maryland, in College Park. She's one of 27,000 undergraduates. To help pay for college, she works at the admissions office.
There are lots of big classes at Maryland, but Gonzales says she doesn't mind. She's not shy and she says professors are approachable. A political science major, she says one of her favorite courses is Constitutional law, taught by lecturer Michael Spivey. She guessed there are about 50 students in Con Law: Actually, there are 70. They meet in three sections and discuss course work there.
Gonzales is a satisfied customer at Maryland. Since we met in August, her focus has sharpened: Next stop? Probably a year away from academics and then: law school. Once again the public option would be a lot less expensive than a private law school. Maryland's law school offers in-state tuition: a steal at $27,000 a year.
"Law school is so close that it kind of gives me anxiety," says Gonzales "Now I have to do like this huge adult step into the real world and it's definitely been nerve-racking. I've never dealt with that before."
She's always had a plan, she says. "But now it feels like my plan isn't as solid." Her whole life, there was a track. Get good grades, get a college degree, get internships, etc. "Someone's always been there planing for you," says Gonzales, "After college they're like: 'What are you going to do with your life?' And you're like um, I'm not sure yet ... It's a choice that's mine to make and no one else's."
About 20 miles away, in Washington, D.C., stands Georgetown University: private, Catholic, academically elite, and — not surprisingly — expensive. The school is on an idyllic urban campus done in university Gothic. And senior English major Margie Fuchs loves the place: especially for its intellectual atmosphere.
In her favorite class this past semester, Romantic Poetry, taught by Professor Duncan Wu, everyone contributes. And everyone is not a lot of people: just nine students.
Fuchs is still thinking of pursuing a Ph.d., just as she was the first time we spoke, when the school year began. And, like Alejandra Gonzales, before the next phase of her education, Fuchs plans to take some time off.
"Having a breather of a year, at least maybe six months, will really help re-stabilize me after a very intense academic environment," she says.
So what does "not having a plan" actually look like?
"It's not just a year off," says Fuchs. "I really want to start doing research into where do I want to go. What next steps, whether its grad school or maybe start looking at other job opportunities, fields that interest me, doing internships. This is kind of my time to look around."
She plans to take the GRE, so she'll use her time after school to fully prepare for that entrance exam.
Our third college senior from Montgomery County is Becca Arbacher. She's a double major at Columbia in New York City — one of the most expensive colleges in America. She arrived from high school planning to study Physics, which she has done. But once in college, she was equally attracted to Political Science. For that major, she's writing a senior thesis, which is optional. It's about the relevance of nuclear deterrence to contemporary threats of cyber and space warfare.
Next stop for her? A job.
"I'm pretty lucky, I've gotten two offers that I'm deciding between," says Arbacher. "I'll definitely be in Washington, D.C. next year."
Both potential jobs contract with the government and take a technical approach to policy work: exactly what she wants to do.
With this good news comes a question: Wouldn't someone as bright and driven as Arbacher do well at any school? Did attending Columbia make a big difference?
"In my physics courses that don't have a discussion component, I could have read the same textbooks at any other school, I could have done the same problem sets at any other school," she says. "The difference is in the kind of people you're around, what the school expects of you, in terms of pushing you further."
At Columbia, she says, "people don't really go home and relax for the summer. People always have internships. You're always on."
She was required to take humanities classes, which gave her permission to take classes she was interested in and to explore other academic fields.
"The intensity of the culture here and the breadth of the education offered here has really defined my college experience."
We'll check in again with our college students later in the academic year.