I’ve decided to close out this blog (for the reasons set forth in my last post). In closing, I’ve written a letter that I’d feel comfortable sharing with any high school student (or parent of one) who’s about to embark on his or her search for the “right” college. As a device, I’m writing it to my fictional grandson, which allows me greater freedom in providing context and personal guidance (instead of simply explaining the options, as I’d be more inclined to do if I were in a professional advisor-advisee relationship with the recipient of the letter). In any case, here it goes:
Dear John David,
Choosing a college that’s a good fit for you is important. But keep it in perspective. Your college will not define you. It’s your virtue and values that will define and guide you throughout life. Might your college impact these? Perhaps a little, but not nearly as much as some people think. Your genes, parents, and the community and time in which you were reared play a far greater role. And you’re fortunate: you have wonderful parents and privileges and opportunities that few in the history of the world have had (although there are inherent risks in privileges, too).
As for college, try not to take it for granted. It’s true that some colleges are better than others. But, again, perspective: it’s an incredible privilege to be able to attend any college. And even if you were to attend the nation’s worst college (whatever that might be), you’d still be able to live a happy life and do great things.
You’re fortunate because you have the further opportunity to attend a residential college. Most students don’t. Many are what we call “day students,” living at home and working one or more jobs while taking as many courses as they can sandwich into their overcrowded schedules. Many attend a community college because it’s close to their homes and the least expensive option. It’s a good option if money is tight or you’re unable to leave home for other reasons. But I understand you’re opting for a traditional residential experience. That’s fine.
So where should you go?
The short answer is, enroll at the best college that will admit you and you can comfortably afford. But you know me well enough to know that I won’t stop with the short answer. Even if I wanted to, I realize my answer wasn’t much of an answer. After all, what is the “best” college for you?
The primary differences among traditional residential colleges have nothing to do with their approach to education or their professors. The educational model is basically the same wherever you go. All professors come out of the same doctoral pipeline and pretty much think of education the same way. No, it’s not their approach to education that distinguishes colleges; rather, it’s:
- the size of the institutions’ and their students’ families’ investment accounts (i.e., institutional and family wealth);
- the successes of the colleges and their alumni that help drive the reputations of the schools (for instance, the number of Nobel laureates as faculty or alumni; the number and identity of alumni who become presidents, supreme court justices, CEOs and founders of technology companies; and the number and recency of football and basketball championships); and
- the academic seriousness of their students (which should never be confused with “smarts” or virtue).
Selectivity and Cost Matter
It’s not a level playing field to be sure. But that’s life. The fact of the matter is, employers who have what most kids think are the best jobs recruit at and hire from what they consider to be the best schools, which means the schools that enroll smart, serious students. The result is an academic stratification and hierarchy based primarily on academic achievement and standardized test scores (which also drive college rankings). So, if you want to increase the options that are available to you upon graduation, you’d do well to attend the college that’s hardest to get in, which generally means the one with the highest average SAT or ACT scores for its freshman class.
Another proxy for selectivity is four-year graduation rate. The top schools have rates over 90%. In general, public universities have lower rates than the top private colleges because they’re larger and serve a wider socioeconomic population. Some of the intensive technology schools have somewhat lower rates, too, attributable to the rigor of their programs or their inability (or refusal) to offer enough sections of courses so students can graduate in a timely manner.
You’re a good student so, as a rule of thumb, you should look for a public university or technology institute (public or private) with a four-year graduation rate of at least 60%. And you probably shouldn’t consider a private college (unless it’s a technology institute) with a rate less than 75% (although higher would be better).
If you have to dip too far into the selectivity pool (either because of cost or admission barriers), you really should ask yourself whether it might make sense to attend a lower-priced community college for a year or two, do well academically and then transfer to a well-regarded four-year school to complete your degree. All and all, community colleges can be a great value and have some of the best teachers in higher ed.
Of course, you may be admitted to certain schools that are simply beyond your financial means yet are highly attractive to you. Be careful about being lured by a costly “dream” school (a concept that, frankly, I find a bit weird). Make sure you can afford the school. If you can’t, then strike it from your list.
Beware of Student-Loan Debt
This may be the most common mistake kids make when choosing a college. The majority of college freshmen never graduate from their first college, and one of the reasons is that they overextend themselves financially. Then, of course, there are those students who stick it out at their first school only to graduate with excessive debt. Neither path is a good one. Both are full of regrets (and possibly worse consequences).
I could go on at length about the insidious nature of debt. Whether it’s a student loan or other debt, it’s the one thing that is sure to create problems for you in life if you let it get out of control. It fractures relationships, ruins lives and saps the potential from many others. I urge you to be really cautious about going into debt.
If you’re intending to pursue a career that doesn’t pay much, you should try hard to get through college without any debt. If you’re pursuing a career with strong earning potential, then some debt is acceptable, but keep it reasonable. If you incur more than you can repay with 10 percent of your salary over the five years following graduation, you’re probably overextending yourself. Of course, less would be better.
So, that’s my semi-short answer to the question, where should you attend college? Go to the one that’s hardest to get in and that you can comfortably afford. But, of course, there are other considerations. I’ll list just a few of the most important ones: Continue reading