Throughout the last academic year, we've followed a group of students who graduated from high school a few years ago in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. We spent the last year talking with them about their choice of public, private or community college. Was the cost worth it? What is the value of higher education?
It turns out they're all satisfied customers. And among the most important subjects they report learning a lot about was themselves. Reconciling their plans and dreams with real life.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now welcome to a college reunion.
KARIE CHEUNG: Evan - Karie - what school are you from?
EVAN BONHAM: NYU.
SIEGEL: Just a year ago we profiled a group of students all from Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, D.C. they had chosen different paths for college. Some went to the big state school - the University of Maryland. Others chose elite and expensive private colleges. Some chose community college. In fact when these young people came out of high school four and five years ago, that was the most popular choice in the county.
We followed them this academic year to learn about the costs and benefits of the choices they made. And now with most of them out of school, we brought them together for pizza and to talk about college.
Welcome to all of you.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: And I'd like to have you identify yourselves for the audience. We'll start with those who were not here in Washington, starting with Rhys. Tell us who you are.
RHYS HALL: Hey, everybody. My name is Rhys Hall. I am a first-year graduate student in sociology at the University of Connecticut.
SIEGEL: Having graduated from the University of Maryland. Jacob, you're in New York.
JACOB MEILE: My name is Jacob Meile. I'm an acting student beginning my second year at the two-year conservatory called The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
SIEGEL: Having gone from high school to Montgomery (unintelligible).
MEILE: (Unintelligible) Montgomery College.
MEILE: Montgomery College for three years and then came here.
SIEGEL: And now joining us in Washington - Alejandra.
ALEJANDRA GONZALEZ: Hi, my name's Alejandra Gonzalez. I just finished university at the University of Maryland. I graduated in May, and I'm going to teach English in France for a year.
CHEUNG: Hi, my name is Karie Cheung. I also graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park. I graduated in December, and I'm currently working at the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.
BECCA ARBACHER: Hi, I'm Becca Arbacher. I graduated in May from Columbia University, dual majored in physics and political science, and now I'm working at Booz Allen Hamilton as a data scientist.
SIEGEL: In Washington, D.C.
ARBACHER: Here in D.C.
BONHAM: Hey, I'm Evan Bonham. I'm a recording music graduate from New York University.
MARGIE FUCHS: Hi, I'm Margie Fuchs. I'm a graduate of Georgetown University, studying English and art history. And I spent the summer teaching English abroad in Hungary in Slovakia.
FUCHS: And Nancy...
NANCY CHEN: Hi, my name is Nancy Chen. I'm still currently a nursing student at Montgomery College, Takoma Park. I will be graduating hopefully in May, 2017.
SIEGEL: And you also have a job as well.
CHEN: Correct. I work at NIH, and I'm a volunteer firefighter EMT.
SIEGEL: Well, let me throw up a question to all of you, and whoever wants to answer you first can do so - which is, do you think back now on what your expectations of college were before this chapter in your in your life began? And did you have it basically right, or have you learned it was really quite different from what you were expecting? Who wants to answer for first - Karie Cheung.
CHEUNG: I think my expectations of college have been exceeded. I always thought that going to college was getting that higher degree, be the first of my family to get a college education. But I realized that I grew a lot being at the University of Maryland. I grew a lot socially, emotionally and definitely mentally.
SIEGEL: Did others among you find that the college experience exceeded your expectations - Alejandra.
GONZALEZ: This is Alejandra. I know, Karie, if you felt the same way since you said you were a first generation also. I had absolutely no idea what I was jumping into when I decided to attend college. Like, my expectations were, OK, I'm here to get a degree, and going into the University of Maryland was so much more than just getting a degree.
It was also about getting to know people with completely different life experiences than my own. And it definitely made me grow as a person and become much more accepting of a lot of different things that quite frankly I didn't know about.
MEILE: Jake speaking from New York - going to acting school, it's almost 50 percent international, so I've gotten to meet all these people from all over the world. From the acting standpoint, you realize how similar humans can be just put into different situations. So that was the most enlightening thing about that for me.
SIEGEL: Becca, for you...
ARBACHER: Columbia sometimes was difficult to enjoy in the moment. There's a lot going on. There's a lot of expectation. I'm sure that's true for everyone. But I think I've definitely found since graduating it's a lot easier to look back and appreciate the benefits and the incredible opportunities that I had while there and how that has put me in an incredible position to move forward with the rest of my life, even if every particular moment there wasn't quite as fun or quite as happy as the movie college education.
SIEGEL: I want to ask about money. Do you enter real life, as we say, free and clear? Do you feel burdened? What's your situation, and what's your guidance - Alejandra.
GONZALEZ: So I graduated with about $19,000 in debt. Right now I owe $8,000. Through the years of working at the admissions office and babysitting between this and that and with help from my parents, we've managed to pay off a big part of my debt.
So in the back of my mind, I am a bit scared of going to law school because grad school is my own debt. It's not something my parents will be able to help me with. Right now I believe the average tuition for law school is about $50,000 a year, so that's a $150,000...
GONZALEZ: ...That I will owe.
SIEGEL: Margie, what about you?
FUCHS: So I also graduated with a lot of student loans, and yes, since graduation, I can definitely feel that clock ticking to when it comes time to start paying your student debt back.
SIEGEL: Do you find yourself thinking about all these things more often than you used to?
FUCHS: Yes, definitely. My parents and I - once I graduated, we had a big discussion about the importance of, like, building a savings and finding a job before you, like, just go somewhere else. So that's my plan.
SIEGEL: Evan, you told us at one point during the year that with hindsight, you thought you should've talked with your parents more about money before you went to college.
BONHAM: In high school, that was definitely something I had - that was in hindsight. I went into it wanting to have an education in something I'm passionate about. I wish I could have had the ability to have a job during school and help pay off some of my loans or help pay off some of my just living expenses. But I'm glad I took that opportunity.
SIEGEL: Nancy - money...
CHEN: My parents work low-paying jobs, and they've always tried to make things work. And money was always tight. I've also had financial aid from school and the fire department to help me with all of my costs.
SIEGEL: The bottom line checks out.
CHEN: Correct. I'm able to save money for, like, vacations. And it's taken me a little longer, but I'm in no debt. And I'm still enjoying life to the fullest.
HALL: Yes. Hey, this is Rhys, everybody. One tip that I would give based on my experience is applying to grants and scholarships. While I'm on the bus on the ride home at 10 p.m. at night, I printed out a couple of essays for small $500 scholarship opportunities. Get home. Type it out. You might fill out 10 applications for essays and only win one, but you know what? You just won $500.
You may not win any, but now you're developing perhaps better writing skills and learning how to answer different questions. For me, almost any downtime I had had to become an opportunity to exercise that part of myself in terms of my brain but also try to expand my financial opportunities.
SIEGEL: Alejandra, Karie, Becca, Evan, Margie, Nancy and Rhys in Connecticut and Jake in New York, thanks to all of you.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: They all graduated in 2011 and 2012 from high schools in Montgomery County, Md. We spent a year with them, wondering if their choice of public or private higher education or community college checked out. It turns out they're all satisfied customers. And among the most important subjects they report learning a lot about was themselves and reconciling their plans and dreams with real life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.