Riya Ashby
Albert Einstein High School
Kensington, Maryland
11th Grade
Grand Prize Winner

Beyond Aptitude: The Value of Higher Education


I closed out Khan Academy’s SAT Prep program. School had already taken up eight hours of my day, and in another hour I had to head to the studio for a long rehearsal. My family runs an Indian dance company, of which I am a part, and as the performance date approached we were meeting five days a week to run choreography. I was busy editing the program notes, correcting group emails to my fellow dancers, and helping record new music to fit our cues. Normally an upcoming show is exciting, and bringing it together is something I have always been extremely proud to be a part of. Preparing for the SAT and ACT early in
my Junior year, however, was beginning to overtake everything. Balancing home life, responsibilities, and
college entrance exams felt nearly impossible. Yet here I was, bleeding away my afternoons to raise my
score. How important, exactly, is college to me?

College education is crucial to my future because it is an opportunity to open up my worldview, shape my
ideal schooling, and take control of my life path. Growing up, I always thought of college as the starry
horizon of education, a place to find and invent myself as a mature learner. Facing the realities of the
application process, however, had me questioning everything. In order to stay motivated, I had to look at
the logic behind my decisions and efforts. In doing so I discovered that my reasons for pursuing a college
education must, and do, run far deeper than I thought.

My high school experience has been positive, with great teachers, friends, and resources. Nevertheless,
every school I have attended, no matter how good, has been constrained by the weaknesses of the U.S.
public school system. Beginning with elementary school there was the state-mandated MSA and the MAPM/R multiple choice test. These then gave way to the shiny, computerized PARCC when I graduated to middle school. It came with unfortunate growing pains: a full week was drained into sitting in a steamy
cafeteria as hundreds of feeble Chromebooks tried and failed to connect to one server and complete the
test. No teaching was accomplished in that span of time. My entire grade entered high school with “high
failure rates”(St.George) on final exams, especially math, because of weak instruction and hasty
curricular changes, and the proposed solution was replacing the exams with quarterly “progress checks.”
I have grown up with conflicting standards, tests, and grading systems, none of which have actually
helped my education. Here enters the unique pull of college. Universities set rules on a school-by-school
basis. Some schools operate on a pass/fail standard, some have open exams, and in none of them would
I be confined to a hot cafeteria for hours to take a simple test. That kind of maturity and freedom is
something I crave: a place to study and learn without limitations.

Going to college is, unfortunately, becoming increasingly difficult. Tuition has more than doubled since
the 80s,(Martin) schools continue to become more selective, and online education is rising steadily like a
Homeric siren promising a better path. To find out why exactly I wished to overcome these obstacles and
go to college, I had to consider my own educational goals. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore said “The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”(O’Connell) Though it may seem utopian, my idea of effective schooling is one that informs one’s whole person and challenges them to serve the common good. I want to place myself in an
environment that pushes me to grow and think in revolutionary ways. This is exactly what college offers.

Going to college is a chance to manifest my ideals of education and create my own life principles. The
very nature of a degree is highly self-motivated; students are engaged with as adults, coursework is
customized to suit the major, and much of the actual learning happens out of the classroom. Only at that
level do constant evaluations and check-ins fall away; if you wish to succeed, you do so on your own
prerogative. The goal is to fully comprehend the material, not to pass the next quiz or scrape an A
through balancing the grading categories; higher education combines the natural joy of learning with
independent, adult responsibility that prepares one for real life. Another personal dream of mine is to travel and see the world, which has always been difficult to do within my family’s income. I have always
seen travel as a learning experience, as it informs people about different cultures, climates, and
governments, so what better way to study than with funded travel opportunities? In college I would have
access to systems like a study abroad program in addition to my classes. If I entered the workforce
directly after graduating high school, on the other hand, my top concern would become paying the rent,
meeting the next bill, or getting a better job. College is my chance to reclaim all the educational dreams I
have learned to lay aside, and once I am through, to form my own identity as a fully informed person. 

An inevitable part of looking into career paths and adulthood realities has been setting my own definition
of success. My understanding of achievement is larger than individualistic career advancement. I want to
see myself making a tangible positive impact on the world. The bigger that impact, the better; I want to
make waves in helping humanity. There are plenty of celebrities who have managed to do this without a
degree, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Ellen DeGeneres, but none of them have do so by ignoring
education. Steve Jobs continued to take classes that interested him after he officially left college, and
Gates now devotes much of his charity work towards preventing college dropouts.

I even have lessons surrounding the value of education in my own family. My grandmother never got a degree; patriarchal family patterns and social unrest in 1950’s India conspired to keep her from education. Nevertheless, she took her passion for classical Indian dance to the highest level, started her own studio, and now visits as a lecturer in multiple Universities. She achieved this by seizing every chance she could to educate herself: taking classes as she raised children, reading constantly, and making contacts with countless people who could help inform her worldview. She currently lives in Maryland, passing on classical traditions to the community, and when I sit at dinner party tables filled with Private University graduates, listening to her articulate replies, I cannot help but think that she is the most educated one among them. She is my personal reminder that impact and success does not depend on specific circumstances, but rather on individual choices, on whether one takes their shot at education in whatever form it can come.

For me, that educational shot is college. I am incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to explore higher education, an opportunity won for me by the efforts of fearless activists long before my birth. The same determination my grandmother put towards building her life and career drives me to attend college. Not everyone who is successful became so because of a college degree, but if it can help me become a
better thinker, find my identity, and understand the world so that I can change it for the better, a degree
is priceless.

Plato said “knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning,”(The Republic) and I am
constantly motivated to question. That curiosity will lead me into seminars, classrooms, and untold
further studies, looking for each next step that can make my dreams a reality. Everyone deserves the
chance to go to college. It opens doors to all kinds of opportunities and provides a more ideal type of
education. High school can be disillusioning, and spending hours studying to solve basic algebra for the
almighty College Board is enough to make anyone question their life choices, but understanding the
reasoning behind that work does make all the difference. My efforts in high school are to win control over
my destiny, to study how and what I want to learn, and to reach a level of capability that will enable me
to help others and change the world. And I would say that is a pretty vital step for anyone’s future
success.

Work Cited

Martin, Emmie. “Here’s how much more expensive it is for you to go to college than it was for your
parents.” CNBC. Nov. 29, 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/29/how-much-college-tuition-hasincreased-from-1988-to-2018.html

O’Connell, K. M. (2003). ‘Rabindranath Tagore on education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education.
http://infed.org/mobi/rabindranath-tagore-on-education/ [Retrieved: 2/15/2018].

Plato The Republic, translated by H. P. D. Lee. London: Penguin Books, 1955

St. George, Donna. “One of nation’s largest school districts ditches high school final exams.” The
Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/one-of-nations-largestschool-districts-ditches-high-school-final-exams/2015/09/08/49cf5810-561e-11e5-b8c9-
944725fcd3b9_story.html?utm_term=.39f6f4ed2a3c