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Is Choosing a College the High-Stakes Choice You Think It Is?
May 1, 2013
Today is graduation day for many Northern California high schools. College acceptance packets have been long-since been mailed out and most decisions have been made. Now the fun begins, right? Seniors get time to hang with their friends before going off to college, enjoying the glow and comforts of home prior to the real fun that begins once new levels of independence are reached on college campuses across the country beginning in late August. This idyllic picture is mostly a fantasy, aided by mass media portrayals of happy-go-lucky kids headed off to college and a popular press bent on selling the idea that getting into the right college will not only change, but will define your life. The reality is that you’d better get used to two phrases: “declining admission rates” and “soaring applicant pools.”
Every September the U.S. News & World Report releases its annual “Best Colleges” rankings, dominated each season by Harvard, Princeton and Williams College. Colleges and universities try to “crack” the top 10 list, jostling for position as if they’re fighting for bragging rights in the (equally problematic) BCS football rankings. For two decades—after the U.S. News & World Report released its first rankings—it was rare that students, parents or the popular press questioned the ranking system, generally, or it’s criteria, specifically. Since 2000, there have been increasing challenges to the criteria and the ranking system, but far too few parents and students wonder just whether the criteria actually measure what’s “best” for them. Equally under-explored is the issue of what happens to students once they get in to the ivy-covered buildings. The college and university ranking systems is a business enterprise oriented towards selling magazines and fattening institutional coiffeurs—not towards finding the right match for students.
Do Teens Really Know Why They Are Headed Off to College?
One of the meta-issues though is that regardless of whether the criteria and validity of the rankings are accepted or debated, their very presence supports the idea that making just the right decision about just which college to enter seems absolutely crucial. But in my nearly 18 years in private practice, working as a school counselor and studying and writing about adolescent development, I’ve yet to hear more than a small handful of teens express cogent, well-articulated arguments for why they just had to go to the college of their choice.
I work primarily in the world of independent (private) schools, where families often have means to pay for high school and college and the parents are relatively successful. The global financial meltdown notwithstanding, these families are still doing well and have held on to their affluence. So, when they think about colleges, they’re thinking about the element of choice, just as any consumer would. But choice and certainty don’t often go together in the universe of attending college.
A 2012 New York Times piece noted, “…at Penn State, 80 percent of freshman…say they are uncertain about their major, and half will change their minds after they declare, sometimes more than once.” Overall, upwards of 60 percent of students change their major by the end of their first year. Four in ten students actually receive a college degree within six years of starting school, according to a recent report of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.
According to that report, each year 3 million young adults head off to some form of higher education each fall. But this annual ritual isn’t what you might think. We’re not talking about 3 million young adults heading off to full-time study, partying at fraternities and working a couple of hours a week to bring in some cash (just in case mommy and daddy aren’t super rich). Almost half of the students going to four-year schools have to work 20 hours a week or more. If you’re attending community college, you likely work a lot more than 20 hours a week. Only about 25 percent of students have that leisurely residential college life we imagined, and almost one-quarter of college students have dependent children. And almost half of them are going to drop out. This isn’t your parent’s college experience.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that today’s college student is often unready for college—not in terms of academic achievement, but in terms of the life skills necessary to succeed at an endeavor that requires juggling multiple roles and the kind of life experience not necessarily taught at home or on elite private school campuses. I could fill my private practice each January with bright, creative students returning from their half-year at college having dropped out or in some way failed their first year (or having left once they were put on academic probation). Sometimes they went away to school with depression and anxiety, and the school experience triggered an increase in both. But just as often they come back suffering with significant depression and anxiety, where no prior history existed. When students are prone to depression and/or anxiety and need to work to attend school, it’s a perfect storm for dropping out. They find the stress too much to productively handle and, focused on the great prize of “getting in to college,” have not been adequately prepared for what they ended up facing.
Some of this isn’t our fault and it isn’t our children’s fault. College costs have skyrocketedover 400 percent in the last quarter century while median family income has slowed. It’s harder to get into school, harder to pay for school and there are few choices made available and attractive to young people other than college. It’s pretty simple: young people who don’t finish college are much less likely to have received financial aid or scholarships (7 in 10 who leave school), compared to their peers who do graduate (only 40 percent of those students leave with debt).
If it seems that financial “means” is a great guarantor of choosing the right college and graduating from that college, you’d be right. But that would mean that students in independent schools would be much better poised to choose their “best” school, get admitted and graduate from that school. It isn’t always the case. These “students of means” can appear to go through a high rigorous process of choosing just the right school from a dizzying set of choices.
For many independent school students, the long and often intensive process of college selection can and often does begin late in the sophomore year, or early in the junior year, involving things like:
Hiring private SAT and ACT tutors to increase the likelihood of obtaining a score that is well within, if not above the average standardized testing school for the college or university of choice;
Hiring private college counselors that know the “ins and outs” of how increase the odds of getting into the chosen school (despite the presence of well-trained and well-connected college counselors at school);
Staying very, very connected to the school counselor, watching intently every college suggested to the student, vigorously objecting when desired colleges are left off the recommend list for application and intensely questioning the counselor’s “strategy” for getting the student in to the chosen school;
Hiring coaches to help “craft” just the write entrance essay or to pour over the student’s vita to suggest additional activities, competitions and awards that might be sought to increase the chances of admission to the chosen or best schools.
The now often-criticized pedagogical strategy of “teaching to the test,” has its correlate in “living towards the college admission.” Time spent doing things (or heaven forbid, time spent not doing anything) is evaluated by student and parent alike primarily in terms of how well it furthers the goal of entering college and moreover, entering just the right college.
What’s Just the Right College?
Well, it’s a school with a great academic reputation, not only (virtually) guaranteeing a great job after graduation, but also affordable for my parents. What are the schools with the best reputations, job placement records and affordability? Well, as long as your parents are relatively wealthy (or you receive a significant scholarship) those are the schools you’re going to see at the top of the U.S. News & World Report list. But the reality is that Harvard’s admittance rank just sank to 5.8%, and according to a recent Boston Globe article, “…admission rates also hit record lows this year at Yale (6.72 percent); Columbia (6.89 percent); and Princeton (7.29).”
So if you’re not one of the amazing 2,000 students out of the over 35,000 that applied this year, good luck. What this means is that the odds of your child going to “just the right school” are incredibly low, if you don’t come up with a better definition of what constitutes “the right school” for your child.
But what are high school seniors saying matters to them about their college choices? The 2012 comprehensive study entitled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012” listed 23 factors that high school seniors say significantly influenced their choice of schools. Those reasons are listed below:
College has very good academic reputation (63.8 percent)
This college’s graduates get good jobs (55.9 percent)
I was offered financial assistance (45.6 percent)
The cost of attending this college (43.3 percent)
A visit to this campus (41.8 percent)
College has a good reputation for its social activities (40.2 percent)
Wanted to go to a college about this size (38.8 percent)
College’s grads get into top grad/professional schools (32.8 percent)
The percentage of students that graduate from this college (30.4 percent)
I wanted to live near home (20.1 percent)
Information from a website (18.7 percent)
Rankings in national magazines (18.2 percent)
Parents wanted me to go to this school (15.1 percent)
Admitted early decision and/or early action (13.7 percent)
Could not afford first choice (13.4 percent)
High school counselor advised me (10.3 percent)
Not offered aid by first choice (9.5 percent)
Athletic department recruited me (8.9 percent)
Attracted by the religious affiliation/orientation of college (7.4 percent)
My relatives wanted me to come here (6.8 percent)
My teacher advised me (6.8 percent)
Private college counselor advised me (3.8 percent)
Ability to take online courses (3.2 percent)
Almost 70 percent of the students in the study believed that current economic conditions deeply impacted their school of choice, with almost 90 percent of those students surveyed in the large UCLA study noting concerns like “getting a better job” and “making more money” as primary factors in choosing a school or going to college in general.
The reasons above are what teens articulated they were taking into account-when someone asked them what factors were really important to them in picking a college. The articulatedreasons for why they do what they do can be quite different than the background (or non-conscious) strategies and values by which they actually their choices. And the two don’t always mesh. For example, when teens are asked whether lying is wrong, they overwhelmingly say that it is, and that they think about this fact and take it into account often. However, close to 90% admit to lying frequently, on a number of different subjects.
We need to understand more about how students really choose a school, just what pressures they’re under and be questioning the exceedingly narrow definition of “success” involved in choosing and attending college. We need to look beyond “college” as being co-terminus with what it means to be successful, as traditional college attendance and graduation becomes more and more rare. We also need to remember our kids are still adolescents as they go through this process of deciding what to do after high school.
Adolescents are Still Young Adults: How They Decide is Different Than How Adults Decide
What I know about teens is that they often make decisions based upon the heavy weighting of unconscious factors or the overestimation of positive benefits they attribute to the factors they are conscious about. So while a teen might say he’s thinking a lot about the academic reputation of the school in making a decision, he’s feeling pretty sure that this “academic reputation” (whatever that means) is going to bestow upon him some pretty sweet benefits. He doesn’t necessarily picture the overcrowded, cavernous 500-seat lecture halls, difficulty reaching his professor rather than a teaching assistant, a large, difficult-to-navigate bureaucracy, intense competition among peers and stress of excelling academically and possibly holding down a job. He cares about the academic reputation and the promise of future cash, but he is picturing other, positive, more current benefits to getting to the right school that may or may not pan out when he actually arrives.
In my experience, seniors might appear to go through a rigorous selection process, but they are often overwhelmed by all the factors that go into the decision and make the choice based on other criteria such as:
What are the status implications about going to my chosen school?
Did I feel comfortable on campus and in the surrounding city/town? Do I feel intrigued and excited by what is offered there?
How much of a hassle is it going to this school? (i.e., how convenient is it, how easy to pay for and negotiate the bureaucracy)
Are my friends going to the school and do they like it? Are they having fun?
Are none of the people I know going there—so that I can have the chance to get away from this pressure and start fresh?
If I visited the school, did I get to go to a party or hang out with friends there? Did I have a great time?
Does the school have a program of study in the area I’m roughly interested in?
Can my parents afford the school and/or how guilty do I feel taking the money?
In other words, teens going off to college are mostly still being teens. That is to say, for teens that actually have a choice about college, their choices are often highly motivated by having fun, avoiding embarrassment and minimizing perceived hassle. Adolescents tend to prefer low-effort, high-reward activities. I’m not criticizing teens for this. It’s part of normal development. But its important to understand that these are overriding factors in their choices, despite what they tell us in surveys and what we want to hear as parents.
The choice of a college is something like the choice of having a child/becoming a parent. There is a ton of information out there about the process and it’s not hard to get information on what to expect, when you’re expecting. You’ve got your parents (and plenty of other parents) to tell you about being a parent and the entire culture reflecting back to you the various meanings of parenthood, childhood and the like. There are statistics on complications of childbirth and delivery. There are statistics on numbers of kids with learning disabilities and attentional difficulties. There is plenty of stuff out in the world about how great it is to have sex. But until you actually become a parent, you don’t know what it is going to mean for you or how it is all going to unfold. And if you told someone all about parenthood and told them to delay, because it might make it easier for them, would they listen to you? Most people I know would just smile, say thanks and offer something that says, “Well, that was your experience” and then they’d go off to have their experiences. That is true for college and the college choice, too. How can your child possibly know what college is going to be like for them until they get there and figure out things like what I call the “10 Little (Big) Truths About College:”
This might be the wrong school for me.
This might not be the right time to be in school.
I might have chosen the wrong major.
I might have chosen this school for the wrong reasons and don’t know yet what the right way of choosing a school might be.
I might have done this all for you, instead of for me, even though you didn’t overtly pressure me to do anything at all.
I’m prepared academically but not emotionally for college
I want to belong and do what my peers are doing, but now that I’m doing that, I hate it or I feel lost or lonely.
College isn’t the answer to my questions and I don’t know what the questions are.
Where I go to college doesn’t really matter, in the end. It’s about where I graduate from…and the best place to graduate from, isn’t necessarily going to be known to me until I’ve had some significant experience in a college or outside of a college.
I thought I was making a choice about college and everything hinged on that. I realize I was anxious about entering a different life, on my own…and all that got wrapped into “choosing the right college.”
Even if parents or guardians raise some of these possibilities in advance of the college decision, it still doesn’t prevent the student from “failing” or at least having to go through an experience that turns out quite differently than advertised.
Public and private conversations alike, as well as unquestioned efforts geared towards “getting in to the best college or university” are often really about status and anxiety over status. That is a subject we don’t talk enough about in the United States and when we do try to talk about it, it is quickly shut down as being about “class” or “class war.” Another way of avoiding the issue of status is to boil it all down to “consumer choice” and question anyone who thinks it isn’t a normal, positive thing to have more information about the colleges and universities we’re going to be sending our money to this coming fall. And of course, we want our kids to be happy (and academically and financially successful), three things that are often conflated in our minds and in the minds of our kids. More on the issue of status in subsequent posts…or you can read more about it in The Approximate Parent.
The college experience and the experience of choosing a college is not the same for everyone in America. Barriers to entry and barriers to completion are drawn heavily along lines of affluence and preparation for the real challenges that happen between when the student arrives on campus and when they graduate. Does your child really have to go to college after high school? Is she really ready? What constitutes readiness? Are there ways to try out a college experience without feeling that it all comes down to “going this year” or “getting into THAT particular school?”
There are many ways of being successful and happy in this world. It’s way past time to take “making the perfect choice about college” off the list of strategies for finding happiness.