Choosing a College
by Adam Weinberg
February 17, 2016
Vistamar School, El Segundo, California
Denison University

Getting The Most Out Of The College Admissions Process By Understanding What Matters In College And Who Succeeds In The Job Market

Introduction: Thank you for the invitation to speak at Vistamar. As I was preparing my remarks for tonight, I was struck by the following statement from your website:

While a great deal of hype about college admissions focuses on ‘getting in,’ we remind students that college is an important next step in a larger life plan. Our students apply to college using a lens beyond merely that four-year experience. The goal is for students to find and choose a school in which they can thrive and excel, a school that will effectively position them for fulfillment in the worlds of work, community, and relationships. It is our belief that this type of approach helps students experience a less frenzied and more appropriate college search process that is informed by big-picture, far-reaching questions.”

I love this quote. It makes Vistamar an outlier in K-12 education in important and valuable ways, and it provides an appropriate backdrop for my remarks.

How do we choose a college? And what do we know about the connection between what matters in college and who succeeds in the job market? More importantly, how does the choice of a college lead to a more fulfilled life in your community and the world?

I want to address these topics from my perspective as a college president, as a parent who has gone through the process twice, and as a sociologist who is fascinated by the social forces that shape how students select colleges.

Let’s start with some observations on trends in the college search process. Over the last decade, families have changed how they approach college selection. I want to focus on three trends of particular importance.

First, selecting a college has become a family decision. Gone are the days, when students talked to a college counselor at their high school, created a small list of colleges, filled out the applications by themselves, and decided where they wanted to go. By contrast, for most families today, choosing a college is considered among the most important decisions they will make. Parents often are involved in every phase of the process, from going on road trips to visit schools, to talking with high school counselors and discussing the wide range of colleges – public or private, big or small, close to home, or far away.

Second, families are searching for value. For parents, this often will be the biggest expense they likely will make beyond the purchase of a home. Parents also are looking at a rapidly changing and bifurcating job market, and they believe this decision will impact their student’s earning potential (and, hence, everything else) for the rest of their lives. Parents are trying to figure out what they can afford that will open up the most doors for their children.

Third, the college search process often is being driven by anxiety that leads to panic. Clearly, Vistamar’s approach is different. Again, I’m quoting from your website: “It is important that students consider their individual values, interests, goals and strengths when researching college options. The more self- awareness they bring to the process, the better their chances of finding those schools that are the right ‘fit.’”

I realize how hard this advice is to follow. Anxiety comes from the lack of information about admissions (Can your son or daughter get in?), and value (What it is going to cost, and what will it get you?). The panic is leading to a lot of pressure early in high school to focus on the search process. During the senior year, this anxiety increases to a level that is both unwarranted and unhealthy. It is taking a process that should be full of thoughtful exploration—maybe even some fun—and turning it into 18 months of stress, with decisions often based on the wrong questions being asked and bad information being used to answer them. In other words, both the questions and the answers are often wrong.

Let me suggest a different way of thinking.

Here is a secret that should guide the entire process: There are more than 4,000 colleges in this country, and there are, at the very least, 1,000 colleges where your son or daughter can get a great education and go on to do whatever they want with their lives. I would encourage everyone in this room to do everything you can to bring down the anxiety level. Everybody in this country has the opportunity to go to a school that opens up doors.

Rather than start by asking about value—which often leads to unwarranted anxiety, the wrong questions guiding the process, and bad choices—start by asking about fit.

What does fit mean? I am going to tell you about three books tonight that every parent should read. (And it wouldn’t hurt students to read them either.)

The first book is by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. It is called Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be. Bruni argues that we have let our anxieties allow the college search process to be driven by an industry composed of test prep companies, tutors, and numerous and conflicting rankings. The message is clear, although it is based on a false premise: Where you go determines who you will become. Bruni, who turned down Yale for a scholarship at North Carolina, dedicates the book as follows:

To all of the high school kids in this country who are dreading the crossroads of college admissions and to all the young adults who felt ravaged by it. We owe you and the whole country a better, more constructive way.”

It is a fantastic guide. Read it before you start the process or as early as possible. Among his best pieces of advice is simply that college is less about where you go and more about doing the right things once you are there.

The second book deals with the question: What do we know about what matters in college? In How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs argue that students benefit most from going to a college where they quickly form friendships with peers and develop a close mentoring relationship with a faculty member. Students who go to a college where relationships don’t form quickly and/or don’t sustain and deepen over time, get very little out of college. The authors write:

People, far more than programs, majors or classes, are decisive in students’ experience of college. Without the motivating presence of friends, teachers, and mentors, even the best-designed, potentially most valuable academic programs will fail. So students who want to both enjoy college and get the most from it in the long run must find at least a few good friends, and a couple of great teachers. A great mentor — a trusted adult advisor, if one can be found, adds a tremendous advantage.”

Chambliss and Takacs are picking up on two central points. The first is the huge importance of mentorship (which I will come back to in a minute). The second is a point made by Andrew Delbanco in his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be about what he calls “lateral learning.” The simple idea is that students actually learn a lot from one another. So it is important to go to a place with motivated students who bring a diversity of views, experiences and life perspectives. (In reality, a college that looks a lot like Vistamar.) And it is important that students take advantage of it. Relationships form the core of the college experience.

The third suggested reading fleshes out this point about relationships. The Gallup Organization and Purdue University, in their massive research project called The Gallup Purdue Index, point out that where you go matters less than going someplace where you will connect with a faculty member as a mentor. This applies to both residential liberal arts colleges and large state schools. Students who had such a mentor have double the odds of thriving personally and professionally. In other words, having a faculty member who cares, who connects with you and catalyzes you, is the key to academic engagement. This is hugely important and it happens far less often than it should. The Gallup research suggests it may happen for as few as 14 percent of all graduates. Simply put, it makes no sense to go to college if you are not going to get academically engaged. This is one reason why a gap year (or more) before entering college makes sense for some young people.

Let me state this bluntly, from my perspective as a college president:

College is short. It should be eight semesters. Each one matters. Do not go until you are ready to take advantage of it. So many young people, especially young men, would benefit from taking a year or two and doing other things. The top of my list includes working, international gap-year programs, and AmeriCorps, especially the National Civilian Community Corps.

The second part is getting involved in a co-curricular activity. Students who had experiences such as a job or internship, a long-term school project, and/or were extremely involved in a co-curricular activity had double the odds of being successful. Yet, sadly, only 6 percent of college graduates nationwide report having had this kind of college experience. 

Notice, I did not say 14 co-curricular activities, which is one of the many bad habits we are encouraging in high school students in preparation for the college admissions process. Students are better off doing one or two things really well, especially in college. Bring a passion—and find a passion.

The question is: How do you find a college where your son or daughter is likely to quickly get immersed, develop a close mentoring relationship with a faculty member, and where he or she will get involved in sustained co-curricular activities that allow them to find good friends and develop strong life skills?

First, you need to start with your own son or daughter. Spend less time focused on finding the right college, for that is the easier part. Spend more time upfront reflecting on your son or daughter and where they are in their own personal development. You need to ask them reasonable and honest questions about themselves. Let me give you an example: there are three young people who mean the world to me who have gone through the process over the last few years. Two are my own children, and the third is a family friend. Our oldest is at NYU. She is a driven kid who knows exactly what she wants, and she has no hesitation about proactively seeking out mentors. She was ready to take advantage of a world-class urban university. Our son is taking a gap year. He is a fantastic young man, who needs some time to figure out who he is and what he wants. The third is now a student at Denison. She is a wonderful young woman, and her personality is such that she thrives best at a college where the mentorship will come to her, and where she will be nurtured and mentored in ways that will help her develop the academic and personal confidence she deserves to have in herself.

Second, start by knowing your family finances, and understanding how much colleges really charge. The sticker price, the listed tuition, is not helpful. Here is what you need to know: how many years does it take the average student to graduate? At Denison, like most private colleges, it is four years. At many public schools, it takes five or even six years (hence, an extra year or two of tuition). You also need to understand the discount rate, which is the average percentage of the tuition students receive in financial aid. For example, at Denison the tuition is listed at $45,000, but we have an $800 million endowment, so we have a 59 percent discount rate, which means the average student only pays around $20,000 in tuition.

And you need to know whether the financial aid is for need or merit. Need-based aid generally will be given to families with incomes less than $150,000 annually. Merit aid is not based on income. Merit aid is based on a student’s profile—GPA, and other special attributes (like arts, or athletics at Division I schools). In other words, when you are visiting colleges, ask questions not about what the college charges, but about what families with students like yours actually pay.

Third, find a place that matches your son or daughter’s interests. One of the mistakes families make is selecting a college because of very small differences in price. Fit is critical. It does not make sense to choose a college that is slightly cheaper if the fit is not right. A number of studies have been done on student debt. My own view is that a total debt of less than $30,000 (which is about the price of a car) does not negatively impact a student. It is worth it to get an education that is the right one for them.

So let me go back to Denison’s sticker price for a moment to drive this point home. Expensive, you were thinking, right? But on average, our students pay less than half, because our college has great resources and invests in its students. Our students graduate with less debt than the national average of all colleges and universities. And within six months of graduation, 90 percent of our students are employed, in grad school, or completing post-graduate service, like a Fulbright or Teach For America. So you just might find that the right fit, at what seems like an expensive college, also can be the smart financial choice. It’s all about asking the right questions.

And I can’t say this strongly enough — if your son or daughter plays a sport, or has a passion for an artistic endeavor, choose a college where they will be able to pursue that passion. If your son or daughter loves a particular academic subject, let them major in it. With very few exceptions, there is little correlation between what you major in and what you do with your life. But there is a correlation between being academically engaged in college and life success after college. Of course, there are exceptions for a few fields, especially in the health sciences, like nursing or being a doctor. In truth, a classics and economics major who has played a sport might be a much more interesting job candidate than a business major. And in the job market, you want to differentiate yourself.

This also is true for students who want to major in the sciences. So much of the value of undergraduate work in the sciences comes from undergraduate research. Choose a college where undergraduates get to do hands-on research and where it is built into courses. Be wary of places where graduate students replace professors in classrooms and knock undergraduates out of the labs.

In particular, because statistics show there is a problem in this area, I worry a lot about boys who want to go to large colleges, but they would be better off at a smaller place where they can actually play baseball, instead of watching from the bleachers, or the science student who is seduced by fancy labs, but chooses a giant university where he will never be able to conduct research of his own.

Fourth, the college tour matters at two phases of the process. Go visit colleges early. Go to a range of different kinds of colleges. Try to not be strident with your views. Ask your son or daughter questions, as opposed to offering observations. Where do they feel comfortable? On the tour, do the following: 1) ask about the size of the endowment per student. Endowment translates into the financial resources the college can spend on providing student experiences; 2) ask about the president and his or her relationship with students and faculty. It may sound simplistic, but you want a college where faculty, staff and students are happy; and 3) get off the beaten path by going to the student union and asking students for their views on their experiences. Finally, once you get accepted, if possible, go back and take advantage of spring visit days. Let your son or daughter spend the night at their top two or three colleges, and tell them to go with their gut.

My last piece of advice is to look beyond 250 miles. Too many students are looking close to home. While that may be right, it also may not be right. We live in a large country, and there are advantages to trying out a new part of it.

Notice what I did not say:

I did not make bold claims that one kind of college is the best. I have spent my life devoted to liberal arts colleges. I have a passion for them, but they are not for everybody. The beauty of the U.S. higher education system is the diversity of colleges and the myriad pathways.

I did not say to pick a college based on famous alumni, high U.S. News &World Report rankings, or even reputation. I always love to answer questions about how best to use the rankings, but I don’t have time to address that in my formal remarks. I have a Huffington Post piece that I will publish in a few weeks on the topic. Here is the punch line: The rankings themselves are not very accurate and don’t tell us much, but some of the metrics that the rankings make available to us are valuable.

In particular, you can find the following kinds of metrics: first-year retention, which is the percentage of students who continue after the first year; four-year graduation rate, which is a good measure of whether students are getting through college in a timely fashion and actually graduating; and the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students, which can be a good indicator of whether a student will have ample opportunities to connect with a faculty member early in the college process. You also can find worthwhile admissions and financial aid data.

In other words, pay attention to some of the data made available, but be careful of the overall rankings because they can be misleading. For example, a large part of U.S. News & World Report rankings depend on a “peer score,” which is a highly misleading statistic, based on how people who work in higher education rank other colleges—despite the fact that they probably have never seen, nor do they know much about, the colleges they are ranking. And some of the information is misleading because not all colleges collect, tabulate and report data in the same way. One example is the percentage of alumni who donate to a college, which seems to be calculated differently across higher education.

Let me conclude by pulling my advice together. Focus on your son or daughter. Encourage them to reflect on the type of college where they can have the kind of experience outlined by Chambliss and the Gallup Purdue Index. Think about where they are most likely to make good friends, find a faculty mentor, and become engaged academically and in co-curricular activities.

And make sure you, as a parent, understand what it will cost for your child to attend a particular college. It is more complicated than it appears. Denison has a $45,000 tuition price tag but will be cheaper than a public university for far more families than you might think.

Lastly, remember that getting into college is the easy part. Making the most of it is the hard part. Parents and students expend way too much energy worried about getting in and selecting the right college, and not nearly enough focusing on how to transition into college, and how to take full advantage of the amazing colleges we have in this country!

For that, I have another talk, which you can find in my writings for the Huffington Post.

Thank you.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.