Overwhelmed by Many Possibilities for Post High School Studies

Hi all,

A year or two ago, I always knew what I wanted to study in college. I’ve always been the one to fascinate about physics and astronomy. I knew that deep inside my heart I would want to study those in college. However, as time passed by (I’m a rising high school senior), I began to develop a lot of interests. I could see myself engaging in astrophysics, but also in chemistry-related and mathematics-related as well. I’d also like to take on a few foreign languages. I like to see that I’m becoming more open-minded and that I’m branching out, but I fear for my future as I don’t know how I’ll choose a major that will suit me well. My plans are to double major (or major + minor) in my main field of study and a foreign language or two. I have an interest in learning: Chinese, Korean, and maybe Japanese (although Japanese is less important to me). Chinese is something I’d want to study because it’s my cultural background and I want to embrace it. Korean is also something I want to study because of my desire to study abroad in Korea.

Aside from the many different possibilities for what I could study, I also am torn between how I should approach college. I know everyone says that the college cost shouldn’t discourage me from certain colleges that seem pricey, but I also don’t want to end up in too much debt. It seems that people in general end up with $20k to $30k in student loans after their undergraduate years. Basically, I’m considering three options, but am stuck and don’t know how I should go about picking one and following through when the college applications process starts (and it’ll be here before I know it).

Option #1) Study at a community college for 2 years. Then, transfer to a 4 year university. I’d save a lot of money by doing this, but the community colleges nearby don’t offer many options for the things I want to study (like chinese and korean, for example). I mainly fear not being able to study the things I want early on, that I’ll lose out on 2 years of good opportunities.

Option #2) Study at a traditional 4 year university or liberal arts college (considering this too) and get my bachelor’s. I’d have a lot more academic opportunities for 2 extra years if I do this rather than going to community college for the first 2 years. However, I’m worried about the student loan debts on this one, as I also plan to study abroad.

Option #3)Study at a community college or traditional 4-year university for 2 years, then transfer abroad (either China or Korea) to complete my undergraduate education. This would fulfill my desire to study abroad and learn foreign languages, but I’m not sure about the finances on this one either.

To shed some light on my situation, my parents have no college savings for me. I am a first generation college student, though. However, I’m not sure how much this’ll benefit me in the long run with scholarships; I know I might get more, but not how much more.

Basically, I’m struggling with: not knowing what to pick for my fields of study, and how I should approach college. Any ideas/advice and things to consider for this confused 17 year old teenager ?

Thanks to all who read my post.

As a suggestion for a first step, you can try this resource to estimate costs for a range of academically top-notch colleges: https://myintuition.org/. If you discover that schools of this type may be affordable, then finding potential choices with a range of suitable majors, minors and programs should not be difficult. The pursuit of astrophysics/astronomy on the undergraduate level may be best approached through a physics major with a focus on courses in your particular areas of interest.

Your parents have no college savings. Can they pay anything out-of-pocket as you go? How much? Can they keep you on their health insurance? Can they buy a car for you to commute with? Can they feed/house/clothe you if you live at home?

So have that money talk with them. If you are going to need a lot of money, go make friends with the folks in the Financial Aid forum. They will have ideas for you.

What are your grades and ACT/SAT scores like? Those will affect where you can be admitted. If they are good enough, there are places where you could get automatic admission and automatic merit-based aid, and other places where you would be competitive for admission and/or merit-based aid.

Every college and university has a Net Price Calculator at its website. Sit down with your parents and run the NPC at a couple of your own home-state public universities, and at a few places that offer your possible majors and courses of interest. Be sure to include institutions at different levels of selectivity, so that you don’t only look at super-selective institutions that also offer super financial aid. Those will give you a false impression what aid packages look like.

College costs definitely should discourage you if you can’t get the fin aid or merit scholarships to make the finances work. Who is telling you they should not?

Also, almost all American colleges have study-abroad programs.

Colleges abroad would also cost money.

How much can your family muster to pay for college?

If you happen to be low income + an outstanding student, there are institutions that meet full need, and programs such as QuestBridge that could be of great benefit.

As mentioned earlier, fill out some Net Price Calculators and see what comes up.

Hey @symmbowL, I’m an astronomer/astrophysicist so if you have any questions on the profession, send me a message!

Firstly, it’s good to get this idea of majors and minors out of your head. They’re actually meaningless. What matters in the end is the classes you’ve done, and whether something is a major/minor is just a matter of doing a certain arbitrary number of courses.

If you want to go into astronomy then you will want to major in physics because you want to do all of the classes that go into a physics major, but it’s definitely possible to enter an astronomy PhD with different majors if you’ve still completed ~the equivalent of a physics major, in all except name. Your goal with majors is usually to signal to an employer or graduate program that you definitely know that subject so they don’t have to check your transcript and add it all up themselves.

So for that reason, there’s actually no incentive for you to get a major in another language. There’s even less incentive to get a minor because even employers don’t care about those. Just do the sub-selection of classes you want and don’t waste time or precious credits trying to fill up a major’s requirement if you don’t actually need it to be a “major”.

As for your options,

(1) is a wise financial move, so I can’t recommend against it in good faith, especially not with the market as it is. You certainly shouldn’t expect to get a job as an astronomer or anything. You can use these 2 years to get your basics and your gen-eds out of the way, and there might not be much space after that for electives anyway.

(2) means more opportunities for research and forming professional relationships, since you’ll be there for 4 years instead of 2. Study abroad can be very expensive though, and to be completely honest, the only people I know who have done that have been middle class or above, so relatively quite wealthy people. The university may help with some costs but there will also be a significant cost out-of-pocket for the incidentals that most people don’t even plan for.

(3) perhaps not. You need to be very wary about transferring abroad because it’s more likely that credits won’t transfer, and you often need to prove that your courses are equivalent to the ones in that country, which is unlikely to be true for all of them. It also sounds like you’re not fluent in the relevant languages, which may be a requirement. If it isn’t, it certainly should be because much of daily life (including serious legal and financial concerns) will be conducted in the local language. Learning a highly technical subject is effectively impossible in an unknown language. Your foreign degree also will not be recognised as widely outside of that country, and may not be highly valued in the US. I would not recommend doing a degree in China due to their very different standards and academic expectations.

With research, you should be able to find liberal arts colleges that offer opportunities in all of your tentative areas of interest. As an example, these are some available programs at Hamilton:

https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/departments/Courses-and-Requirements?dept=Physics

https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/departments/Home?dept=Chinese

https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/catalogue/department-display?id=46

https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/departments/Home?dept=Japanese

^ Key question with LACs is affordability. Run the NPCs.

Also, your SAT score will impact what choice is best financially:
freshmen get the best scholarships so in some cases it’s cheaper to start directly at a 4-year university, either a “meet need” university/LAC or a university with big merit aid.
(if your scores and grades aren’t high enough for a scholarship, then it makes sense to start at a CC, but for a strong student, it may be a short sighted choice. This also depends on where you’re living since some states have free CC or good scholarships to the state flagships… and others don’t.)
Each college decides how they give financial aid, each has their own formula, and just because one decides to give you grants and scholarships doesn’t mean another one will, too, so you really need to run the NPC on each and every college you’re considering.
Do you have a rough idea of your EFC or what your parents’ income is?