What is the best way to choose a college? And what do we know about the connection between what matters in college and who succeeds in the job market? And more importantly, how does the choice of a college lead to a more fulfilling life?
Let’s start with some observations on trends in the college search process.
- Selecting a college has become a family decision. 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.
- Families are searching for value. For parents, this often will be one of the biggest expenses they will have, along with the purchase of a home. Parents also are looking at a rapidly changing job market and believe this decision will impact their child’s earning potential (and, hence, everything else) for the rest of their lives. Parents are trying to figure out what they can afford and what will open up the most doors for their children.
- The college search process often is being driven by anxiety, which can lead to panic. Anxiety comes from the lack of information about admissions (can my son or daughter get in?), and value (what will it cost, and what will it do for my child?). That panic is leading to a lot of pressure early in high school to focus on the search process. And during senior year, it can increase to a level that is both unwarranted and unhealthy.
Let me suggest a different way of thinking.
There are more than 4,000 colleges in this country, and there are, at the very least, 1,000 colleges where students can get a great education and go on to do great things with their lives.
Rather than starting 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 that mean? It means asking questions that help you to determine which college will meet the needs of a particular student.
In his recent book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argues that our anxieties allow the college search process to be driven by an industry composed of test prep companies, tutors, and numerous and conflicting rankings. 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. He dedicates his 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.”
So 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 don’t sustain and deepen over time, get very little out of college. The authors write:
“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 critical importance of mentorship (which I will come back to). 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 learn a lot from one another. So it is important to go to a school with motivated students who bring a diversity of views, experiences, and life perspectives. And it is important that students take advantage of it. Relationships form the core of the college experience.
The Gallup Organization and Purdue University have done extensive research to create The Gallup-Purdue Index, which measures what matters in college. Two important findings are clear:
- Faculty mentorship is crucial. Students who have a great 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 profoundly important and happens far less often then it should. The Gallup research suggests that as few as 14 percent of all graduates have that experience. Simply put, it makes no sense to go to college if you are not going to become academically engaged.
- The second part is getting involved in a co-curricular activity. Students who had experiences such as a job/internship, long-term school project, and/or were extremely involved in co-curricular activity had double the odds of being successful. Yet, sadly, only 6 percent of graduates had this kind of college experience.
Notice I did not say a dozen 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 become immersed quickly, develop a close mentoring relationship with a faculty member, and get involved in sustained co-curricular activities that allow them to find good friends and develop strong life skills?
First, prospective students and families need to start with some self-reflection. Spend less time focused on finding the right college, for that is the easier part, and spend more time up front reflecting on your son or daughter and where they are in their own personal development.
Second, know your family finances and understand how much colleges really cost. The sticker price, meaning 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 some public universities, it often 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 percent of tuition students receive in financial aid. For example, at Denison tuition is listed at $46,250, but we have an $800 million endowment and use our resources to invest heavily in our students. Our 59 percent discount rate means the average student pays less than half of the listed tuition.
- And you need to know if the financial aid is for need or merit. Need-based aid will generally be given to families with a household income of less than $150,000. Merit aid is awarded without regard for income; it is based on a student’s profile, GPA, and other special attributes.
In other words, when you are visiting colleges, ask questions not about the list price, but what families with students like yours actually pay.
Third, find a place that matches your son’s or daughter’s interests. One of the mistakes prospective families make is selecting a college because of very small differences in price. Fit is most important. It does not make sense to go to 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 debt of less than $30,000 after four years (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 an individual student.
If your son or daughter plays a sport or has a passion for an artistic endeavor, choose a college where he or she will be able to pursue that passion. Don’t go someplace where they only will be able to watch others perform. Choose a college where they will be likely to make the team, be cast in a play, join a music ensemble, and have a chance to pursue their passion.
This is also true for students who want to major in the sciences. So much of the value of undergraduate work in the sciences comes from hands-on research. Choose a college where undergraduates get to conduct their own 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.
Fourth, the college tour matters. Visit a range of different kinds of colleges. Try not to be strident with your views. Ask your son or daughter questions, as opposed to offering observations. Where do they feel comfortable?
Ask an admissions counselor about the size of the endowment per student. Endowment translates into the financial resources a college can spend on providing student experiences. On the tour, ask about the mood on campus. You want to be someplace where faculty, staff and students are proud of the college. And 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, go back to campus if at all possible and take advantage of April 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.
Focus on your son or daughter. Encourage him or her to reflect on the type of college that will create the kind of experience outlined by Chambliss and the Gallup-Purdue Index, a place 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 the finances of what it will cost for your child to go to that particular college. It is more complicated than it appears. Denison has a $46,250 price tag for tuition, but most families pay far less. In many cases, Denison may be less expensive than a public university.
And 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 worrying 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.