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The Times is following three teenagers in Topeka, Kan. as they decide where to apply to college – and even whether college is the right choice for them. In a live chat on Tuesday, we talked with the students, their principal and experts about navigating the path to higher education. We’ll rejoin the students in the weeks ahead as they make their choices and hear back from admissions offices. If you’re just joining us, here’s a look at the journey so far:
Nathan Triggs, a senior at Topeka High. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
He is Nate in the country and Nathan in the city, torn between two worlds.
Nathan Triggs lives with his mother in Topeka on weekdays. On weekends, he drives his scruffy Chevy S-10 pickup truck to his father’s farm outside Holton, population 3,300, about 45 minutes to the north.
In the country, what matters is what you can do with your hands: baling hay, hunting or fixing a broken U-joint. In the city, what matters is what you can do with your brain, whether it’s understanding the difference between kinetic and potential energy in physics class or being able to explain the meaning of social capital in government class.
Nathan/Nate can do both. That push and pull between these worlds is working on him now as he tries to decide, amid conflicting advice from family and friends, whether to go to college or to trade school. But are the life of the farm and the life of the mind mutually exclusive?
The college decision is a critical turning point and a central point of satisfaction in life, economists say. That’s why college admissions directors say everything matters — not just grades, but also life experience.
Nate, who is about to turn 18, sees a number of gates ahead of him, all attractive. Which one will he choose to go through?
To get to Nate’s father’s farm, you drive north from Topeka on U.S. 75, past the ubiquitous grain elevators and a sign advertising Goodyear, one of Topeka’s largest employers. The landscape undulates from a gritty urban setting to more idyllic cornfields, sunflowers and church spires. About a half-hour on, Holton flashes by in two stoplights.
The gravel driveway to the farm is marked by stars and stripes painted on boards, like a Jasper Johns painting, with a baby’s footprints where the stars should be. Its whimsy hints at the affectionate family life inside. In the kitchen, the grocery list on the chalkboard shows requisitions, in different handwriting, for “man soap” and “sanity.” Well-seasoned cast iron pans hang on the wall, and in a freewheeling spirit, nobody minds that the bathroom has no door.
At school in town, Nathan is the quiet boy in the back of the classroom, whom nobody notices.
The student government leaders and the high school principal have to think for a couple of minutes before he gradually swims into view — lanky, in jeans and cowboy boots. Oh yes, they say, the farm boy. What is he doing at Topeka High? He does not seem to belong.
In Holton, Nate has learned skills that are not clearly measured on a college application. He even speaks differently, mixing his tenses and sprinkling in some ain’ts. In Topeka, he is a committed student who eagerly signed up for a college-prep program when he was still in seventh grade.
“Is that why you’re in all those honors classes?” his grandmother Ann Matthews asked the other day when she heard him talking about his schoolwork. Nate nodded shyly.
His grandfather Al Matthews, a retired insurance claims manager who, like his wife, has a college degree, is pushing the military, saying Nate can find himself in the service before making a life-changing decision like going to college.
“Does one go to college, and run the risk of spending four years and a lot of money and getting out and there’s no jobs?” Mr. Matthews said, sitting on his comfortable front porch in nearby Netawaka, Kan. as Nate listened quietly. “Use the military as an intermediate step while you can see what is going on with the economy.”
Or, he said, “lay out for a year” and work. To which Nate instantly replied, “I don’t want to lay out for a year.”Autumn Weyand, an academic counselor at Topeka High in Kansas, speaking about college during senior parent night in September. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
High school seniors and their parents during the event. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
Autumn Weyand, left, an academic counselor at Topeka High, and the audience during senior parent night. Photographs by Christopher Smith for The New York Times
In late September, Topeka High held a senior parent information night, encouraged by the new superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, who has made college attendance a priority. The guidance counselors were startled — and pleased — to find a line of parents stretching down the main hallway of the school.
The parents were told that to be assured admission to most of the big state universities in Kansas, students had to have at least a 21 on the ACT, the average at Topeka High, or be in the top third of their class. Scholarships, a counselor warned the parents, are harder to get than they might think.
But the counselors did not assume that all students aspired to go to college. “College is not the only option,” Angela Locke, a guidance counselor, told the audience. “Sometimes it’s not even the best option.”
While the counselors “firmly believe the philosophy that college is great,” Ms. Locke told the parents, “Our world is a different place than when most of us were going to school.”
She added, “I know when I was going to school, if you were going to college, you probably were going to get a very good job.” A very good job could no longer be taken for granted, she implied.
Last year, she said, Washburn Institute of Technology, once the vocational arm of the Topeka public schools and now a division of Washburn University, had added a phlebotomy program. “How cool would it be to be able to work my way through college as a phlebotomist?” Ms. Locke said.
This year, Washburn Tech added cosmetology, which is “wonderful for Topeka,” she added. “We feel pretty confident that they’re not going to take a lot of tuition money from our students and disappear.”
Ms. Locke went on to extol Topeka High’s R.O.T.C. program and the benefits of an apprenticeship or a union. “We are going to help students get from Point A to Point B, and it’s not always going to be college, and that’s O.K.,” she said.
There was little talk of how to prepare for standardized tests like the ACT or the SAT. At the very end, responding to a question from the audience, a counselor said that “a lady from Manhattan” would be offering one session of ACT prep during the school day in the week before the test, and that it would cost $40. The session had been arranged by the school’s gifted facilitator, and people were told that for further details, they could go to the counseling center and pick up a flier. They were also told to go to a website, Number2.com. for free online test prep.
“We do have some study materials for you, practice test booklets” and links to online resources, said Kayla Banzhaf, the testing coordinator.
A parent asked about the deadline to sign up for the ACT. “Last Friday,” a counselor replied. “There is a late fee.“
Nathan Triggs’s mother, Tera, speaking with Phillip Wrigley, a teacher at Topeka High, during parent-teacher conferences in October. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
For Nathan Triggs’s mother, Tera, Topeka High was the bright light of her life. She hung out at the mall; worked at Bobo’s, a local diner; and performed with the flag team. She loved French class, because it was easy for her and she liked the teacher’s accent. She learned to make crepes in French club. After passing home economics, she took interior design, and fantasized about becoming an interior designer.
But she is also an object lesson in how elusive college can be, and how hard it often is to get there without role models and help from a wealth of people, including parents, teachers and tutors.
Ms. Triggs, 39, graduated in 1995 and wanted to go to college, but somehow the opportunity passed her by and she never applied. “I wasn’t a very good student,” she said, apologetically. “I only made the honor roll a couple of times.”
Soon she was pregnant with Nathan’s brother, “and then I was a mom,” she said.
Now she works in a center for people with developmental disabilities, and was recently promoted from aide to secretary.
As she spoke, Ms. Triggs sat in her cozy living room in a small bungalow on a red-brick street, in a part of Topeka where a real estate agent warned me to watch my back. But on a street without public street lights, the Triggs house is strung with twinkling white decorative lights that blink out a welcome.
As the memories of high school came flooding back, she dashed upstairs to her bedroom. On the bureau, under a pile of clean clothes, was a pale blue-glazed ceramic vase, decorated with rosettes. She had made it in high school art class and saved it for more than 20 years.
It would be “awesome,” she said, for Nathan to go to college.
But Ms. Triggs’s inexperience means she does not know how to help put him through the paces of applying. His father, Tim Sturgeon, never went to college either. His older brother dropped out of high school.
Has Ms. Triggs looked at Nathan’s college choices? “No,” she said.
Has she looked at his essay? “What essay?” she asked, softly, as Nathan sat across from her in their living room, petting his black dog, Lucky.
“I am a very determined person. I have always found a way to get the job done, no matter the level of difficulty the task may hold. I developed this trait at a young age by working for everything that I have by earning money doing farm work. On a farm, nothing comes easy enough.” – from Nathan’s first draft of his college essay.
TaTy’Terria Gary and her mother, Tracy, navigated a sea of desks and teachers during parent-teacher conferences at Topeka High School in October. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
“She knows what she needs to do,” Jennifer Womack, a college-prep teacher, told TaTy’Terria Gary’s mother at a recent parent-teacher conference night at Topeka High School. “She knows what she wants to do, and she’s taking care of it.”
The glowing comments from one teacher after another came to sound like a broken record, though with a happy tune.
But TaTy, whose teachers have encouraged her long-term plans to go to medical school, was not the only one on the receiving end. Her mother, Tracy Gary, 35, came in for some of the credit.
“She’s defying that whole stereotype that a single mother cannot raise a child successfully — pshaw!” said Teresa Leslie-Canty, the teacher in a class where TaTy mentors younger students, as mother and daughter sat across from her in the high school gymnasium.
Teenage pregnancy can be part of the high school experience at schools across America, and Topeka High is no exception. Several girls here told me that they had classmates who had become pregnant, and that they felt sorry for them because life was suddenly much harder, and they were stigmatized.
“So many girls are looked down upon because of it,” said one of TaTy’s classmates, Mya McFadden, whose mother was a student at Topeka High when she had Mya and her twin sister, Deja, 17 years ago.
The twins’ mother and father were high school sweethearts, a dream couple, so good-looking that they turned heads as they walked through the halls holding hands. But the gloss quickly wore off when their father, Michael McFadden, had to join the Army to support his children and was posted to the war in Iraq.
He came back with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The couple split, and the girls went to live with him. Like TaTy, they have taken their family history as a warning, and they are determined to go to college.
Tracy Gary was a senior at Topeka High when she gave birth to TaTy, her oldest child. She turned 18 two weeks after giving birth. Though she was allowed to walk in her high school graduation, she had half a credit left to earn, she said, and did not receive her diploma until more than two years later.
TaTy was not planned, Ms. Gary said, “She was a rebellion against my family.”
But Ms. Gary was also repeating history. Her mother was 15 or 16 when she had a son. Ms. Gary’s sister had her son at about 15 or 16, too. Ms. Gary was raised mainly by her grandmother, because her own mother, she said, had other interests. “My mother cared more about the men,” she said.
She resisted her mother’s pressure to have an abortion, and being a mother forced her to mature. “When I had her, I started to grow up,” Ms. Gary said. “I knew I was responsible.”
Ms. Gary has two other children, a 10-year-old girl and a boy about to turn 14. But as TaTy’s teacher said, Ms. Gary broke the cycle. She worked at fast-food jobs, advancing into management, to support her children, then realized she wanted more out of a career.
So she enrolled at Washburn University, a public institution in Topeka with a neatly groomed campus and a serious atmosphere. She is close to a degree in criminal justice, a field she chose because she always wanted to be lawyer, and this comes close.
Ms. Gary was ambitious in high school but not academically focused. She was a manager for track and basketball teams and spent four years in the Marine Corps R.O.T.C. because she liked the structure and having “somewhere to go, something to do.” She thought about going into the Marines, until she became pregnant, but she did not consider college an option.
She is proud of TaTy for being more committed to her studies than her mother was. She attributes much of her daughter’s success to the guidance of her college-prep teachers. “I didn’t have anybody telling me, ‘Hey, you’re good in English, so you should take those A.P. classes,’ ” Ms. Gary said.
Last year, Ms. Gary moved TaTy and her two younger siblings to Pauline, on the outskirts of Topeka, where the city gives way to antique stores, gas stations and car dealerships, then finally to railroad tracks and cows. The family lives in a ranch house in a subdivision of similar houses. “I’m real big on stability,” she said.
Ms. Gary works taking care of children at the Villages, a group home for children who have been abandoned, abused or in trouble with the law. So she relies on TaTy to help take care of her younger sister and brother.
When it comes to college, Ms. Gary said, she will support TaTy in whatever she decides to do. But she hopes her daughter will go far enough from Topeka that she will not be able to return home on weekends, even if she feels homesick. “I don’t want her to ever think about quitting,” Ms. Gary said. “I don’t want her to walk in my shoes.”
Zac Shaner and his mother, Charla, spoke with Jennifer Antonetti and Eric Bradshaw, Zac’s band teachers, during parent-teacher conferences at Topeka High School. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
When Charla Shaner appeared at a recent parent-teacher conference with Zac, she looked immaculate in pressed coral blouse, skirt and smooth blond hair. Few of the teachers realized how much effort went into maintaining that middle-class facade.
Ms. Shaner’s intense focus on her two sons helped steer them into the Topeka public school system’s gifted track, based on their exceptionally high IQ’s in elementary school. She has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and for some years ran a daycare center out of her house.
But Zac’s family is downwardly mobile. Ms. Shaner, 51, and her two sons are barely making ends meet, surviving mainly on government benefits. They are emotionally overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks of life and school.
Zac and his brother wonder whether the American dream of a college education is still attainable for them, and if it is, whether they can afford to go to a college where they will blossom.
About seven years ago, Ms. Shaner lost her daycare license after dropping a 6-month-old on the head while she tried to hold the baby, talk on the phone and watch out for a pot of boiling water in the kitchen.
She attributes the accident to a traumatic brain injury she suffered in a childhood car crash, which left her in a coma. She still has damaged peripheral vision and a squint in her right eye. She misses taking care of babies. But she has not tried to renew her daycare license or find another job in her field, because, she said, the accident made her realize that she should not be taking care of other people’s children.
So she supports the family largely on her disability payments, in addition to small amounts in child support from her ex-husband, which she expects to run out now that Zac is older.
The family lives in Oakland, in northeast Topeka, a neighborhood of small houses, porch ornaments, chain-link fences and barking guard dogs. Ms. Shaner’s parents grew up in the same predominantly white, working-class enclave in its golden era, but the community ties have frayed since then. She rents her house at a discount from her father, Charles Wray, 78, who has worked as a pastor, a Goodyear tire maker and a salesman of church directories. In retirement, he is a self-taught Norman Rockwell-style painter of portraits. Both he and Ms. Shaner’s mother have college educations.
Ms. Shaner sometimes quarrels with her Puritanical father about overdue rent. But she has made paying the water and electric bills a priority. She has seen other houses in the neighborhood go dark, and people without running water who have had to wear donated clothes until they are dirty and then throw them away. She does not want that to happen to them.
She volunteers at her Nazarene church’s food pantry and used clothing bank, partly from the goodness of her heart and partly out of necessity. In exchange, she takes home extra food and clothing for her family.
The food selection can be arbitrary; one week, they ate a lot of pepperoni and tomato sandwiches. The suit jacket that Zac wears in the orchestra came from the charity.
Ms. Shaner’s sons see that going to college – as she did – is not a panacea. She still needs food from the food pantry.
As he considers college, Zac alternates between optimism and anxiety. He has received many fliers in the mail saying he is a “priority candidate” for community college, but he is determined to go to a four-year college despite his spotty school record. “I know it sounds like blown opportunities, but I know what I want,” he said.
Rebecca Morrisey, the principal of Topeka High School, in her office. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
Topeka High’s principal, Rebecca Morrisey, understands how hard it is for kids to visualize going to college out of state, or even leaving Topeka.
Ms. Morrisey, who took over as principal this year, grew up on a farm in Atwood, a city of 1,200 people in northwest Kansas. When she first arrived in Topeka, many years ago, it struck her as “a metropolis.”
The first thing you notice when she walks into a room is how tall she is, six feet in flats. Being so tall was her ticket to becoming a basketball player and coach, and a first-generation college graduate. Her coaches helped her figure out how to apply to college.
She cobbled together academic and athletic scholarships and low-income grants to go to St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kan. (The college has since closed.) Her three children did not stay close to home. One runs a cytogenetic lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. another is in Boston training to be an architect and the third is a nurse-anesthetist in Kansas City, Kan.
“I have kids on the east side who have never been to the mall on the west side,” Ms. Morrisey said. “I grew up that way. My grandparents were six miles and 10 miles from us. I didn’t get to Oklahoma until I was an adult. I didn’t get west of Denver.”
Just persuading students that going away might be an option can be hard. To nudge them, Ms. Morrisey and Phillip Wrigley, one of the college prep teachers, arranged a trip the other week to Rockhurst University, a Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Mo. where Ms. Morrisey coached basketball and Mr. Wrigley earned his master’s degree.
As they walked through the lush, green campus, one of the seniors, Mya McFadden, a petite, spunky twin, told her teacher why she wanted to be a midwife. “I have a soft spot for teenage girls because my mom was 15 when she had me and her,” she said, gesturing toward her twin sister, Deja, walking next to them.
Mr. Wrigley urged her to consider leaving Topeka. Being in Kansas City, at a place like Rockhurst, would open the door to practicing medicine in some of the most sophisticated academic medical centers in the country. “I’m going to say something snobby,” he said. “Stormont Vail is a good hospital, but it’s in Topeka.”
Joan Barker of the Topeka High School Historical Society in the library at the school. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
Topeka High was authorized during the Roaring Twenties and opened in 1931, in defiance of the Wall Street crash. Designed as a Gothic temple to education, it is still a high school out of Hollywood casting, so prized by its graduates that it has an on-site archivist, Joan Barker, a 1971 graduate, whose salary is paid by donations.
Yet its record of achievement does not match its lofty architecture. The percentage of students who graduate from high school hovers in the low 70s, compared with about 10 points higher nationally. After graduation, about 45 percent enroll in four-year colleges, and 17 percent in community colleges, in line with the national average for urban schools.
The new superintendent of city schools, Tiffany Anderson, wants to change that.
She arrived in Topeka this summer from Missouri, where she was the superintendent of the Jennings School District. That district adjoins Ferguson, where the killing of an unarmed black man by a police officer who said the man had fought for his gun propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to the national stage. (A grand jury declined to indict the officer.) She was hailed as Topeka’s first African-American female schools superintendent.
When Dr. Anderson began working here, she found that the school system was using a popular program, Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, to identify middle school students with college potential, and to groom them for college by encouraging them to take honors courses and then advising them on the application process. The program has had mixed results across the country.
She said she was bringing a tracking system to Topeka from Jennings, which will follow every senior by name and document whether they have applied to college or the military, how many applications they have filed, whether they filled out a financial aid form, their highest standardized test score, and whether they were ultimately accepted.
In Missouri, Dr. Anderson became known for community-building innovations like installing washers and dryers in school buildings so families could do their laundry. She has already made an impression in Topeka for rushing around in suits paired with white sneakers, accessorizing to match school colors, and refueling with Dr Pepper, a popular drink among Kansans, who pride themselves on being nonconformist.
Dr. Anderson keeps an apartment in Topeka, but drives home most nights to Overland Park, where her husband is an OB/GYN and surgeon. But the commute has shrunk to an hour, as opposed to four hours from Jennings.
She is the general to the troops, issuing inspirational declarations like: “Money’s no barrier, because it’s really not. Our mind-sets are the barrier.”
Dean Fairweather discussing a Ford Ranger during his automotive class at Topeka High School. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
The wood shop and the metal shop have been closed, but if you want to learn how to fix cars, Topeka High School’s legendary auto mechanics class is for you.
The shop is a car addict’s paradise. At the moment, students are cutting a car in half as part of a project to build a homemade electronics trainer, a learning tool for mechanics. They are also overhauling a go-kart and practicing their painting skills on a bus that will be redone in black and gold, the school colors, and paraded at football games.
At the beginning of senior year, the teacher, Dean Fairweather, a blues guitar player who looks like a Hells Angel and speaks with a strong British accent, brought in a pitchman from Universal Technical Institute to speak to the students, so they could see, Mr. Fairweather said, “that there’s more to life than flipping burgers.”
It was a slick exposition, one of the most persuasive the students will hear on the pros and cons of technical school compared with a four-year college.
The pitchman, in fancy cowboy boots and belt buckle, presented the technical institute as, effectively, the Harvard of what he called the transportation industry. After graduation, he told the students, they would be in demand everywhere from Porsche to Nascar.
He did the math. The average rent in Topeka is close to $600, he said. A minimum-wage job brings in, he figured, about $15,000 a year, $1,000 a month after taxes. After paying rent, you still need a phone, a car, utilities, groceries, food, fuel, furniture. “What are your options?”
But a high school diploma is not enough, the representative said. “Having just a diploma is like telling an employer you can brush your own teeth.”
The military is a “phenomenal choice,” if you make a career out of it, he added.
A traditional college degree is one approach. “You will never learn too much,” he said. “You will never be too smart.”
But, he argued, if you feel at home in the shop and want to go right into a job, “do not waste your money.”
Americans are overeducated for the jobs available, he told them. “If everybody went to college, there’s going to be a lot of unemployed people like there is — there is going to be a lot of people not working in their fields.”
Nathan Triggs, one of the class stars, was in the front row, listening carefully. He took the trouble to talk to the rep, and they bonded over trucks. Nate signed up for a personal interview — to keep his options open, he said.
Nathan Triggs in automotive class at Topeka High. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
The knowledge Nate Triggs has gained from the farm may not be from books, but it is shaping his vision of his future, and of what he could do after graduating from Topeka High if he gets a college education.
He works construction with his father. One of his favorite projects was the hip roof that they built for his grandfather’s house. I had never heard of a hip roof. but when he took me to see it, I thought it looked like the kind of roof that Frank Lloyd Wright put on his celebrated prairie houses.
Nate had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. But he nodded appreciatively at the concept of a prairie house. His father’s farm, outside Holton, Kan. is prairie country. Nate’s experience working construction makes him think that if he goes to a four-year college, he would like to become an architect. He has done the research, and found that Kansas State University has a good architecture and engineering program. He is good at math, so he would like to try there.
Or maybe he will become a game warden, he said. As a hunter, he has seen animals horrifically mutilated by other hunters. He would like to prevent that. In his family, they never kill wild animals wantonly, and they always eat what they kill.
But he is also a good auto mechanic, and can envision working at the Ford dealership in town.
Nate has been hunting and fishing for as long as he can remember – catfish, bass, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes, deer, quail, turkeys, doves. He knows all their quirks and habits.
One recent morning, he loaded his Mossberg shotgun, put on his camouflage vest and headed out through his 80-acre family property with his hunting buddy, Tyler, to the cedar copse where the doves roost.
Two dogs followed: his black dog, Lucky, who commutes with him from Topeka each weekend in his Chevy S-10 truck, and a yellow Labrador trained as a bird dog. It was near dawn. On the horizon, Tyler saw a truck passing slowly on the highway and waved. “It’s loaded down with corn,” Tyler said. “It’s harvest time.”
They could tell the doves by their distinctively angled wings, their quickness and their flight pattern, more soaring than flapping. Tyler took three shots, but Nate never raised his gun. He reminisced about how he once let three male turkeys strut right past him down a creek bed as he sat behind a ground blind, because he was holding out for deer. “I coulda smoked ’em,” he said. “I didn’t think they was quite big enough.”
It is a character trait, this perseverance, this willingness to wait. Isn’t that what college is all about? Delayed gratification.
He is weighing the benefits of each. “With technical school, you go in for what you go in for,” he said. “With four years of college, you expand your interests.”
His grandmother Ann Matthews, a retired teacher, said it should be up to him. “He’s analytical, so I think he’ll make a good choice,” she said.
TaTy’Terria Gary working on college scholarship applications in her college-prep class. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
“Everyone’s going to have crisp and nice new pants this year,” TaTy’Terria Gary told the group of about 20 girls gathered around her in the second-floor hallway at Topeka High.
They are members of the step team, a dance group that performs at basketball games, and TaTy is speaking to them as their captain.
“From now on, you are upstanding citizens,” TaTy said. “Don’t talk back to your teachers. Don’t be starting fights. Don’t be causing drama. And y’all better be on time.”
She sees herself empowering girls who probably wouldn’t make the cheerleading squad. She does not ask the girls for more than she asks of herself. When something needs to be done, TaTy does it, and it is that ability to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward, ignoring any obstacles, that seems to be moving her toward college. When she needs help, she asks for it.
Last Saturday, Oct. 22, was the day for college-bound Topeka High seniors to take the ACT, the standardized test favored by Midwestern colleges and universities. That day, TaTy got herself up, dressed and went to McDonald’s for a breakfast of sausage and cheese on a biscuit with grape jelly and hash browns. She drove herself the half-hour to school in her used 1999 Chevrolet Tracker, and had enough time to socialize with classmates before the test.
The science section was hard, she said; English was easier. She’ll find out her score in about two weeks. Meanwhile, she has filled out the Fafsa, the financial aid form, putting down parental income of under $18,000. She was excited when the financial aid calculator estimated that she could be entitled to nearly $11,000 a year in financial aid.
“If I go to Oklahoma Baptist University, that will cover one-third of everything,” she said gleefully, naming one of the schools she is applying to.
Her college-prep teacher, Jennifer Womack, has tried to give the seniors a sense of the cost of college beyond tuition, including extras like “Walmart runs,” drugstore supplies, gas, parking, and room and board. TaTy has absorbed this lesson. One of the colleges she is interested in has free laundry, she said.
But she is not worried about college debt. She is certain that education is a good investment. She is counting on making enough money eventually as an obstetrician-gynecologist to pay off her college loans. “Let’s say I go into private practice and earn $5,000 a kid,” she said. “That’s very profitable.”
Zac Shaner and his mother, Charla, spoke with Zac’s graphic design teacher, Mona Morrissey, during parent-teacher conferences. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
It was Saturday night, and Zac Shaner’s four-man band, Pegasi, was setting up at the Boobie Trap, a small, dark cave of a bar on a sketchy stretch of Sixth Avenue in central Topeka.
Zac plays bass guitar and sings in the band. This night, his drummer, a finance major at Washburn University who wants to go into bankruptcy law, is the first person in the door, and begins setting up.
“I can tell a lot about someone’s playing just by their attitude,” the drummer said. “How they carry themselves. How they act around people.”
He joined the band because he was touched by Zac’s gentle personality. “I don’t really sense any form of ego with him,” he said.
That sweetness and humility come across in Zac’s interactions with teachers, as well, and have endeared him to them even as they worry that he is not living up to his potential. Is it fear of failure? Perfectionism? They aren’t sure, but they want to help.
He has so much charm and talent, they say. He is college material – good college material – if only he could be more consistent in his schoolwork.
“Talk to me, Zac,” Murray Moore, his business teacher, said to him at parent-teacher conferences the other day.
Zac is taking business class in the hope that he can use the knowledge he gains to promote his music and help his band. His grades range from strings of 100s one week, when he is coming to school, to rows of zeros the next, when he is not.
But he could be a star. Zac explained that he goes through “cycles of motivation.” Part of his problem is psychological, he said: “When everybody’s on my back and forcing me to do things, I want not to do it. When people say it’s up to me, I want to succeed.”
Mr. Moore listened, then told Zac’s worried mother, Charla, “He has to help himself.”
Clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, Zac tried to change the subject. “Is that a Jerry Garcia tie?” he asked, looking at his teacher’s neckwear. He has one at home, he said.
“It’s Stacy Adams,” Mr. Moore replied. Then warming to the subject, he tried to turn the question into a homily on positive thinking.
Mr. Moore was an assistant basketball coach for a losing team, he said. He told himself that every time the team won, he would treat himself to a new tie. The team turned itself around and was 19-4. “That got expensive,” he said, but he persisted.
The moral of the story: “You’ve got to invest in you and in what you do.”
“It’s not about the tie,” Mr. Moore said. “You could buy a new set of picks. Reward yourself. What you need is a Yates banjo or a Scheerhorn dobro.”
“I’m telling you, I know a thing or two,” Mr. Moore said. He reached for a business card from a pile on the table. “You got my card. You call if you need help. You want to come to class, you are always welcome.”
Topeka High hallway as students change classes. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times
As they look to graduation, many Topeka High seniors are debating the value of a college education. Is it worth their while to go to a four-year institution? Or should they choose a two-year degree, technical school or the work force instead?
From an economic point of view, studies show there is little contest: The pay gap between people with four-year college degrees and everyone else is bigger than ever.
That gap has been growing since the 1980s, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, not so much because wages for college graduates have risen, but because the average wage for everyone else has fallen.
“If there is class mobility in America, it exists through the vehicle of education,” Sean C. Bird, an associate dean at Washburn University, a public university in Topeka, said the other day. Mr. Bird focuses on retaining first-generation and disadvantaged students at the college.
College is transformational, he added. “They walk differently, they dress differently, they think differently, they talk differently,” after going to college, he said.
Beyond the economics, proponents of college education point out that there is value in loving to learn, and in knowing how to learn. The market value of a college degree may be less tangible than the value of technical certification in a field like welding or auto mechanics, but college advocates say there is strength in versatility.
“You will be employable on the day you graduate, but it’s impossible to say what you’re going to do,” said E. Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College, a small, highly selective liberal arts college in Brunswick, Me. “Because the exposure in those four years is so broad that the possibilities will be incredibly broad. It will take the student’s experience and motivation to nail down what this will look like.”
But, she added, “It can feel insecure if it doesn’t have a salary attachment and a guarantee of a particular job.”
That conflict between knowing right away what the future holds and being willing — and perhaps able — to assume some risk is exactly what the Topeka seniors are facing. Many of the best students will take that risk, move to more vibrant urban areas and never look back.
“On the whole, Kansas is facing a brain drain,” said Alan Bearman, a Washburn dean who works with Mr. Bird in helping keep students in college. “Some of our very top-achieving students leave after high school, and they don’t come back.”
For those who stay, the goal after high school can be very practical. “We’re looking at the next generation of Topeka police officers, attorneys and teachers,” Mr. Bird said.
In mid-October, some of the students here attended a fair given by Washburn Institute of Technology, the tech school in town. The parking lot was full of pickup trucks and 4x4s. Each presentation, in fields like construction, technology and health care, was crafted to give prospective students a precise sense of the wages they would make on the day they graduated, and the companies that would be likely to hire them.
In computer science, for instance, the teacher told them they would make $15 to $20 an hour in their first year after graduation. If they learned to operate an excavator, they were told, they could make up to $22 an hour. For a machinist, common starting wages ranged from $12 to $17. For masons, $15, “If you’re union,” the teacher said, adding, “It’s a little bit labor intensive, but not like you’re out bucking bales of hay. That’s work. This is fun.”
Data show that the average hourly wage for college graduates rose slightly to about $32.60 over the last decade, double the wage for everyone else.
A few days later, the seniors took WorkKeys, a test to measure basic job readiness skills, and then filed into the auditorium for a mandatory manufacturing presentation. They were told that local factories for companies like Mars chocolate and Frito-Lay were looking for people who were at least 18 with a high school diploma and who could “show up to work on time” and be “part of a team.”
“Does making between $13 and $19 an hour sound good to you?” one of the presenters asked.
But an edge of near-desperation often crept into the presenters’ voices. They knew it was an uphill battle to attract students who could show up to work on time, let alone the best and brightest.
“Sometimes young kids think about manufacturing as a last resort,” Michelle Waggoner, a human resources manager at Mars, said after the presentation. “We don’t want them to view it as a last resort.”