“The College Decision—Worth Getting It Right”

By Peter Van Buskirk

Among lifestyle investments, a college education ranks among the most important—and the most expensive—in the life of a young person. Getting ‘it”—the choice of a college—right is critical to realizing a strong return on the investment.

Chosen well, a college education sets the table for years of opportunities that will determine comfort and success for graduates, their families and their careers. Chosen well, every penny of the investment is repaid many times over. Choose poorly, however, and the debt is compounded by lost earning opportunity, reduced productivity and diminished return on investment.

Every year, nearly two million U.S. students and their parents invest in education for the first time, in many cases gambling their life savings in the process. Some do it well. They prepare and compete effectively, putting themselves in a position to acquire the type of educational experiences that will serve them well in life.

Regrettably, though, many—including students of all means and backgrounds—fall short of achieving their goals. Either they fail to complete the education they’ve started (barely half of entering college freshmen will graduate from any college at any time in their lives) or they muddle through their college years only to cross the “finish line” without any real sense of accomplishment or direction.

Frankly, this is unacceptable. We shouldn’t be content with a “system” that only works half the time. It’s not healthy for the young people who fail to make good on the promise of their own ability and it’s not good for a society that, ultimately, must pick up the slack for them.

Whether you are on the verge of choosing a college or you are just getting started in the college search/selection process, it is critical that you engage in thoughtful discernment and decision-making with regard to your future. Focus on your needs and priorities. And keep in mind that colleges are more than rankings and reputations—they are diverse academic programs enveloped in a range of campus cultures. You deserve the opportunity to choose the place that makes the most sense for you. Wherever you are in the process, keep the following in mind:

  1. Challenge assumptions. The college admission process isn’t what it used to be nor is it what many colleges would have you believe it is. Moreover, the realities can’t be found in chatrooms or backyard conversations. A healthy cynicism is required for distilling the reality from the rhetoric.
  2. Keep your mind open to a range of solutions. In doing so, you acknowledge that success in college—and in life—is less a function of the space one occupies and more a function of how one takes advantage of the opportunities present in that space.
  3. Make good choices—choices that are truly student-centered. Every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on, not only how students compete for admission but how they live the next day and beyond.
  4. Focus on “fit.” The best college for your student is the one that “fits” her best. (And, it will always be the one that values her for what she has to offer.)




3 Responses to ““The College Decision—Worth Getting It Right””

    Your approach is so healthy and balanced- thank you for sharing about the college application process in the context of big picture life and reality!


    I like the criteria you present. Could you provide some examples for each one of four areas you say to keep in mind?


    Tim,
    I’ll see what I can do to answer in “short form.” With regard to challenging assumptions, just know there is a lot of hyperbole in the college going space. Much of it comes from the colleges themselves; some comes from “experts” and chatrooms and yet others comes from social conversations. As I suggested in the blog, a healthy cynicism is required for distilling the reality from the rhetoric. Nothing can replace original research and, specifically, college visits during which students need to talk with people (students, faculty) who aren’t paid to promote.

    In keeping an open mind to a range of solutions, I specifically encourage students (and parents) to step away from rankings and the presumed excellence of schools based on editorial opinions and to focus on “fit.” Initially, this means exposing the student to a range of possibilities (size, location, cost, style of instruction, public/private support, etc.) by “window-shopping” for colleges early in the process. In doing so, the focus on fit (see fourth point below) is essential to making sound choices in a healthy, productive student-centered selection process. I would again point out that success in college—and in life—is less a function of the space one occupies and more a function of how one takes advantage of the opportunities present in that space.

    And good choices—choices that lead to productive college experiences–will be truly student-centered. When students are intentional/purposeful in their selection of colleges and the manner in which they present themselves to colleges, they find themselves in much more competitive positions as applicants. Too often students defer to others in the process and fail to take ownership. When that happens, they get what they get. Every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on, not only how students compete for admission but how they live the next day and beyond.

    Finally, I believe there are five elements of “fit” to be considered when assessing college options. The best college for your student will be the one that 1) offers a program of studies that meets her needs, 2) provides a style of instruction consistent with the manner in which she most comfortably engages academically, 3) offers a level of rigor/challenge commensurate with her ability and preparation, 4) provides a sense of community that feels like home and 5) values her for what she has to offer. Finding relevance with each of these elements requires thoughtful introspection before you/she can begin to meaningfully assess college possibilities.

    Peter


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