While one usually comes right after the other in one's life, high school and college are radically different experiences for most young people. There are some people who reminisce fondly about high school days, while others long for the freedoms of a dorm room and a meal plan. High school is a period of time that includes more milestones than college days, in most cases; ironically, it is also a period of time that many adolescents end up missing most of, because they are so busy thinking about the future instead of the present. Arriving at college exposes students to unprecedented levels of independence – and responsibility as well. While many will differ as to whether they prefer one time of their life to another, it is definite that, of the two, college is the more formative experience, when it comes to transforming young people into the next generation of adults.
While high school and college both offer many opportunities and experiences that are an important part of moving from adolescence to adulthood, they are quite different in the levels of independence – and the risks of failure – that they offer. While more milestone experiences tend to come in high school, college offers the most opportunities to move into autonomy as an individual.
One thing that is true about young people in their teens and twenties is that they are in a hurry to move on to the next phase in life. Because most of the true challenges in their lives lie before them, they are anxious to get out into the world, living as independently as possible. And so the days of high school fly by for their parents, but those seemingly interminable biology and English classes seem to drag on forever for these teens, as the excitement of the future still dangles before them. So many milestones pass by during the high school years – first boyfriend or girlfriend (the three-hour relationships that are common during middle school do not count), driving a car, and graduating from the twelve years of school.
The days of high school have more significant events in the life of a teenager – the moments that are preserved in photo albums and yearbooks for decades to come. After all, these years are the very first when children start to make tentative steps out of the safety of the home – and they are the first when many teenagers make their first major mistakes. Luckily, being at home means that they have more of a chance to recover from those mistakes, so that they don’t repeat them out in the adult world.
These steps include driving a car for the very first time. This milestone is a combination of increased responsibility and personal independence, as teenagers get to head out into the streets on their own, without their parents having to give them a ride, or go along with them. The responsibility of handling a multi-ton machine that can be dangerous if handled recklessly is a tremendous one; the independence of being able to go as far as your gas tank will take you is equally wondrous to the new driver.
Another milestone would be that first “serious” romantic relationship. In middle school, students are still figuring out the building blocks of their grown-up identities, which is why they hop from girlfriend or boyfriend to the next, often within the same day, in a mimicking of the ways of their older brother or sister. In high school, though, the “L” word may come out for the first time, as the emotions connecting the couple become more serious. They may exchange class rings and even letter jackets; the night of prom may end in a hotel, instead of back at home, as matters become more serious. The first sexual experimentation often takes place during high school years as well. All of these milestones will stay in a teen’s memory for years after the events have taken place, and the lessons from mistakes in those days help shape the way that teens will make decisions in future years.
The years of high school are a time when teens can’t wait for the next day, week or year to come, as the prospect of coming independence from their parents gets closer – and increasingly enticing. They’ll sit in the back of chemistry lab, thinking about the coming weekend or about that text message they just got from the guy or girl they like, fantasizing about the future instead of listening to the lecture on the chemical properties of sodium chloride, and the like. While the milestones do click by, the focus of a teenager is on tomorrow, and the day after that, and the year after that. This means, of course, that many of the moments that a teen will later look back on as precious or valuable flew by at the time. It also means that the moments that young adults later regret not paying more attention to went by quickly because of that focus on the next big thing. However, this focus on the future has been a part of late adolescence just about as long as there have been young people growing up on the planet.
The college experience, on the other hand, is the time when many people do the most maturing in their entire lives (of course, others don’t mature at all, and others even do some regression, as they fall into negative habits). However, the formative experiences in college often separate those who will be successful from those will not – not just on the basis of grades, but also on the ability to form connections and relationships that will last a lifetime.
First, though, comes the ability to manage independence. College is a time when many young men will see how long they can go without washing their bath towels, wondering why it becomes stiff – after all, since the towel only touches you when you’re clean, should it ever need cleaning? The “Freshman 15” is a common period of weight gain that happens to students who fall in love with takeout pizza and fast food (which are both easier to order than cooking food would be), and late night trips to burger joints – not to mention that first exposure to alcohol and its calories. Managing all of this along with making it to class, managing assignments, juggling a job, and all of the other first steps to personal independence is a major challenge. For many students, this challenge is too much, and they end up dropping out and finding a job, or going back home until they find employment. For others, this is the great flowering of their lives, as they emerge from the structure of elementary and secondary school, taking part in such activities as the student newspaper or radio station, joining clubs, forming friendships, and enjoying the shared struggle of becoming adults alongside their new friends.
One way or another, college is the first great test of maturity and independence that many students face, and it offers the first significant opportunity for students to either succeed for themselves and by themselves, or to falter at the doorway to adulthood. Either way, it is a time period that people never forget, and often remember nostalgically.