A College-Going Culture

One of the catch phrases that often gets batted around higher education circles is “college-going culture.” Typically associated with the idea of helping under-represented and first-generation high school students take their education beyond high school level, the words came to mind last week when the USEF and NCEA announced the creation of the NCEA Junior Hunt Seat Medal, a new 3’3″ equitation class that can be offered at USEF licensed events in the U.S. and Canada, Designed to help junior equitation riders experience bracket-style competition for the first time and increase their visibility to NCEA coaches, it was also announced that future bracket-style competition in the western and reining disciplines is in talks.

While this is exciting and unites the “traditional” horse show world perhaps more closely with intercollegiate competition than in the past, it creates questions for me related to the idea of what it means to foster a college-going culture and what this new division means in the greater world of intercollegiate equestrian competition.

Allow me to explain:

Last fall, a program known as the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success emerged with the goal of uniting public and private colleges and universities to help all students (regardless of their background) recognize and develop their particular paths to college beginning in ninth grade. And while on the surface the cause is noble, it was met with harsh criticism by college counselors and educational consultants, most notably because of the way the system is designed. The argument of counselors is that the Coalition application will not favor the target group it hopes to (those students from lower income backgrounds), but instead will become yet one more advantage in favor of wealthy students from strong schools who will gain easier access to wealthy, highly-ranked colleges.

In other words, instead of creating more access, counselors fear the Coalition application will reduce it.

(Do you see where I’m headed, readers?)

Again, I want to be clear that I support any introduction of collegiate equestrian programming into the traditional horse show world. Any time young riders hear the word “college” and are presented with the idea that higher education is available to them, that it’s accessible, and that they don’t have to give up their riding careers in order to further their education (no matter what their future goals), it’s a good thing.

(Also, I’m all about bribing kids to go to college with the promise of ponies. Whatever works, I say.)

But with the addition of these new classes at USEF (and eventually at AQHA) rated competitions with the goal of creating greater access to scholarships and coaches for riders who wish to compete in college, does this create a similar situation to that presented by the Coalition application? Does it, in fact, present an easier platform for the already-successful junior riders to present themselves to college coaches and put up yet one more hurdle for others?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do I pretend to have creative solutions to any higher education-related issues (equestrian-oriented or otherwise). What I do know after over a decade of work within these two complex industries is that making the transition from high school to college (and from high school riding career to college equestrian team) is hard. In fact, in recent years, it’s only gotten harder. More requirements by schools, additional testing opportunities, and reduced financial aid awards with increased student debt loads have complicated college admissions while the breadth and scope of available opportunities in the saddle have made the intercollegiate equestrian world far more complex than it was when Bob Cacchione founded the IHSA in 1967.

It takes a savvy student with good support to navigate the waters successfully, no matter their background.

And I suppose that’s what I want your takeaway from this post to be, readers – I want you to understand that there are a lot of ways for you to connect with both colleges and college riding coaches. Some are expensive and some cost only time and effort. You can ride in the new NCEA Junior Hunt Seat Medal or the U.S. Pony Club Championships, the Maclay or the IEA, the All-American Quarter Horse Congress or your local 4-H show. You can choose not to compete during your high school years and still have a robust and wonderful college riding career.

You can go to a large, urban public high school, a small, private rural one, or anything in between and get into a good school as long as you have a strong academic record. You can work with an educational consultant or your school counselor or you can do all of the research and application process yourself.

The most important thing to know is that you are in control of your own college process and you will make the best decisions for your own future. And that’s something that I don’t think is said enough, especially as our media-saturated culture steeps everyone in the idea that success is only attained through prestige and that prestige is only attained through financial expenditure. The value of one’s time and energy is often left out of such equations but can lead to an outcome that is just as good – and often far more meaningful.

So spend a lot or spend a little in your college search. Go to a lot of horse shows or go to a few. As long as you work hard, get solid grades in a challenging high school curriculum, and put in the necessary time and effort to become an educated college consumer, you’ll be just fine. (And remember, when you get to college, there will be ponies!)

(Need some extra help in the search? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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