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College is about more than a lucrative career path

What a pleasure to find the smiling faces of 43 local high school valedictorians featured on your pages. (Sunday, June 3 and June 17). Having taught thousands of secondary school students, I appreciate what these young people have achieved with both academic excellence and participation in various extracurricular activities.

The June 3 issue of the Mail Tribune features the headline: "College Costs: A Study in Debt" with articles on how today's students are financing their college educations, and the enormous debt being earned along with college diplomas. One article reports: "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently created a student debt calculator as part of its 'Know Before You Owe' initiative." It adds this scary statement: "Odd as it seems, some college grads have absolutely no idea what they owe."

The "Know Before You Owe" plan is for students to use an online calculator — currently being developed — to determine their costs, savings required, scholarship and loan amounts before choosing a college. Once fully operative and filled with information on thousands of U.S. colleges, the calculator would allow students to know before starting college what their monthly loan debt costs would be after graduation.

Reading that reminded me of legislation being promoted by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden called "The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act" introduced in Congress in February. Your April 11 article, headed "Wyden bill would set up U.S. higher education database," says the proposed legislation would require federally funded colleges to submit data to a national database to better inform students.

"The database would include the potential salaries students would make based on their major and which school they attend, and students could compare the results to the debt they might accrue while pursuing their degree," says the article. It adds that Wyden believes "the database could create a marketplace atmosphere for students selecting a school and field of study, ... (and thus) ... make informed decisions and seek the education with the most value."

"Seek the education with the most value"? That caught my attention. How do we define "the most value"? Is it strictly monetary gain? If so, I struck out by spending my career teaching in secondary schools, which I loved doing. Let's look more closely at our 43 local valedictorians and their education plans.

A careful reading of your articles on valedictorians shows the largest number — 16 — will pursue careers in the medical field: doctors, nurses, medical technicians. Seven plan to become engineers or scientists, two would become lawyers, two journalists, one an educator, one a businesswoman. Four will focus on artistic pursuits.

Ten valedictorians — 23 percent — have no idea what their career choice is. Some of the 77 percent who are now certain will surely change their minds as they explore areas of study required for college graduation. I witnessed that with my students and my own children; college expands students' awareness of career opportunities. Yet Sen. Wyden's Know Before You Go Act would have high school students as young as 17 commit to careers before they even select a college.

What colleges did our local valedictorians select? Twenty-one — nearly half — will attend Oregon public colleges. The rest will attend public and private colleges in other states nationwide. The difference in cost can be huge. The 10 students undecided about careers are divided evenly between in-state and out-of-state schools. Part of the education value that colleges provide is the chance to explore career opportunities. A key issue is the monetary cost of that process. Then there is graduate school, required for many careers and carrying ever larger costs.

The Know Before You Go and Know Before You Owe policies are meant to guide high school students into choosing careers while they are teenagers, then selecting the best-suited college and major, emphasizing the ratio of college costs to a career's monetary gains in the pursuit of an "education with the most value." Missing from that equation is the process of discovering one's best career choice.

Not all teenagers truly know what they want to be when they grow up — even high school valedictorians. Yes, they should be informed about college costs and how they will be paid for. But students should also be able to explore career choices in college, in the pursuit of an education that leads to happiness in their life's work. That is a worthy educational value.

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught math for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools and was a member of the board of education in Willard, Ohio.