Back to School

It’s that time of year again. Dashing to the mall for back-to-school clothes. Scrambling to finish summer reading assignments put off in favor of outdoor play. New backpacks, sneakers, and school supplies at the ready.

I’ve always loved fall in the U.S. northeast. The leaves change color, there’s a bit of a chill in the air, and a new school year begins.

Even as a kid, I got excited for school to start – to reconnect with friends, to meet my new teachers, and to immerse myself in school experiences. Whether starting first grade in a new town, going to high school with kids I didn’t know, attending college away from home, or heading out west to graduate school, I’d enter the school year with nervous butterflies in my stomach and an eagerness to learn.

For me, school is squarely in my comfort zone. I didn’t find it easy per se – I worked hard, stayed up late finishing homework, and had my share of struggles with concepts and assignments. But the structure and challenge of school fit me well. I enjoyed taking notes in class, organizing my binders, completing assignments on time, learning new things, and solving tough problems. This, I suppose, explains why I remained a full-time student until I was 27 years old.

My kids groan about getting back to the grind – early morning wake ups, long school days, and piles of homework. Even my husband, a high school teacher, laments the end of summer. While I also love the slower pace of summertime, I’m excited to get our family back to the school year routine.

Education plays an important role in building knowledge, developing skills, and shaping minds. Around the world, most people finish primary school and two-thirds complete secondary education. Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom are among the countries with the highest secondary education completion rates. In the United States, about 90% of adults have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Beyond high school, there is more variation in educational attainment levels across geography, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. About 40% of the global population pursues post-secondary education – at vocational schools, technical training institutes, or colleges and universities. The percentage of adult college graduates in the U.S. has been increasing over time, with 38% of adults today holding a bachelor’s degree. More U.S. women than men finish college, and 61% of Asian American adults, 42% of White adults, 28% of Black adults, and 21% of Hispanic adults are college graduates.

There is still so much we need to do to enable equitable access to educational opportunities for all people. The most often cited reason that people do not pursue higher education is the cost. In the U.S., college expenses have been steadily increasing, and today the average cost for a year of college at a four-year school is over $35,000, including tuition, room, and board. College fees are lower everywhere else in the world; in fact, in some countries (like Denmark, Norway, and Poland), tuition is free.

I also acknowledge that many don’t feel the same excitement about school as I do, and they may struggle with learning difficulties, social anxiety, or inadequate support. I was fortunate to have an incredible support system when I was in school; my parents valued education and helped me succeed. My husband and I both help our children when they struggle with concepts or need assistance studying for tests – him more for history and economics, me more for math, science, and English.

Anyone who has played the game Life knows that getting a college education can improve earning potential and career opportunities. But not all rewarding roles require four-year degrees. As one example, IBM’s apprenticeship program provides experiential on-the-job learning for employees with a passion for technology but no bachelor’s degree.

Some of us continue on for still more schooling after college. In the U.S., about 13% of adults have an advanced degree. I spent five post-college years in school getting a master’s degree and a Ph.D. This included classwork, hands-on experimentation in a lab, theory and simulation, writing papers, presenting at conferences, and defending my dissertation. For me, the experience was less about building any particular subject matter expertise, but more about learning how to learn well. I came to understand what it takes to become an expert. I demonstrated self-motivation, learned perseverance, and gained confidence – all of which have served me well throughout my career.

Most parts of the world practice some form of summer vacation – extended time off between school years. While some suggest that the summer holiday dates back to agricultural times, that’s actually a myth (since the agrarian calendar would advise schooling in winter/summer with longer fall/spring breaks to support planting and harvesting). Instead, the practice is intended to give students (and teachers) a break during the hottest months of the year. Some data suggests that students lose ground during summer vacations, so select school districts have shifted to year-round schooling.

As per the theme song from the animated comedy series Phineas and Ferb: “There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation, then school comes along just to end it. So, the annual problem for our generation, is finding a good way to spend it!” In the U.S., the average summer break is nearly two-and-a-half months. It’s a bit longer in Greece, Lebanon, Russia, and Spain; and a bit shorter in Australia, Brazil, Germany, and India.

There’s no mistaking it: Fall is here, and school is back in session. In my part of the world, it’s the season of apple picking and pumpkin muffins. Fresh notebooks and three-ring binders clutter my dining table. Early morning wake-up calls begin again on Tuesday. I expect alarm clocks blaring, lunches hastily thrown together, bagels popping from the toaster just-in-time for my child to stumble bleary-eyed down the driveway, lugging his overstuffed backpack and saxophone, to sit maskless amongst his friends in a yellow school bus. It will be chaos. And I’m unabashedly looking forward to it.

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