Emily Jacomet and Connor Buckborough stood at the top of the escalator, their red “Ask Me” T-shirts loudly proclaiming their belief in the seemingly infinite possibilities lined up table-by-table in the cavernous room just beyond them.
Emily: “It's more than just an education. It's an experience. You'll remember these experiences and these friends for the rest of your life.”
Connor: “It's the world's best network.”
Emily: “I've met my lifelong friends.”
Connor, nodding: “They'll be in my wedding, for sure.”
Student ambassadors from University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Emily and Connor spent a recent afternoon welcoming an expected 4,000 high school students to the second annual national Denver College Fair at the Colorado Convention Center.
“It's overwhelming,” Emily said of the vast choice behind the doors. “It's crazy. But once you find the school for you, you'll just feel it.”
Like a special relationship.
Finding it, though, can feel almost impossible as you walk into the hall where seemingly endless rows of tables in blue and white draping stretch from one end to the other.
“It's stressful,” Greenwood Village junior Jessica Diamond said, as she wandered down an aisle.
The more than 300 universities offered something for everyone. There was Saint Michael's College, a picturesque Catholic Vermont campus of 2,000 students. There was the spirited 24,000-student-strong University of Oregon. And there was Arizona State University with its mega-Tempe campus of more than 60,000 students.
But even their stripped-down presence of tablecloths and pamphlets stirred a sense of excitement, of potential and promise and the glimpse of futures just waiting to be grasped.
Students and parents strolled the aisles, looking, questioning, listening, waiting for that spark of connection that this could be a school to consider.
“It's kind of like in high school, you're preparing for college,” said junior Elizabeth Lipshutz, a friend who accompanied Diamond. “In college, you're preparing for the rest of your life.”
Rafael Barron, a junior from Aurora, wants to be a doctor someday. He was looking for possibilities.
“There's so much to think about,” he said. “It makes me excited, not so much scared but nervous … about what would be the best choice for me.”
His parents, Yadira and Gavino Barron, resolutely believe in the power of college as a launching pad to success, one worth sacrifice in time and money.
“It's so important to have that college degree,” Yadira said, “because no one can take that away from you.”
She and Gavino have four children — Rafael will be the second to attend college. And Yadira will tell you she and her daughter, in her first year at Regis University, easily fall into dreaming about what lies ahead.
Gavino is more pragmatic: “You've got dreams and goals, I've always said. A dream is just a dream — a goal is when you have a plan … This,” he said, glancing at the row of tables, “is part of the plan. This is a step from Point A to Point B. This is why we're here.”
But getting to Point B isn't always easy these days.
A report by the U.S. Department of Education finds that if the cost of attending public four-year institutions continues to increase, the price of a public education in 2016 will be more than twice what it was in 2001. “The rising cost of college,” the report continues, “may make it increasingly difficult for students to access and complete their postsecondary education.”
About two-thirds of bachelor's degrees recipients borrow money to pay for their education, research shows, and the average college senior graduates with $25,000 in student loan debt.
That financial concern has refocused how colleges and universities reach out to prospective students, admissions directors say.
“Four years at college is such a transformational time — you really figure out who you are,” said Anne Fattig, assistant director of admissions of small-town Simpson College in Iowa. “The right college kind of makes or breaks that to an extent.”
But it's not enough anymore to highlight only the experience.
“It's such an incredible investment,” Jeremy Brown of Saint Michael's College said. Students need to “find that institution where not only they feel safe to explore who they are and who are going to become, but also a place where they have opportunities upon graduating.”
So, outcomes — a college's job placement and loan default rates, for instance — become key ingredients to the quest.
Three years ago, Brown couldn't have rattled off the college's default rate without researching it first. Now, it's at his fingertips. Students and parents, he said, want to know they'll “be getting jobs when they graduate and can pay off their loans.”
Connor Buckborough, the ambassador from UNC, is counting on being able to do just that. A sophomore studying communications and brewing technology, “I'm pretty far in the hole,” he said about his loan debt.
But he has no doubt about his choices.
“It's going to be worth it, as long as you excel,” he said. “There's always a way.”
Emily Jacomet is certain, too. “One hundred percent. I'll never regret going to college.”
Education. Experience. Friendship. Self-discovery. Work.
Amazing how a cavernous room of tables and pamphlets can scatter seeds of infinite possibilities.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.