If you read news headlines and follow press coverage about the world of college admissions, you might be inclined to think that most students go through a meticulous, well-researched college selection process.
You might also think that the majority of students — especially those at “good” high schools — have proper guidance into what colleges would be best for them.
Sadly, none of these misconceptions are true. Students often pick colleges for the craziest, most foolish, irrelevant and sometimes most trivial of reasons.
Here are some of them.
The Role of Friends, The “Party” School and Cute Guys and Gals
As mentioned, by and large, U.S. high school students pick their colleges of choice for all the wrong reasons.
Many students go to a school just because it’s a local campus or near their home. Other students pick certain colleges simply because their friends or boyfriends/girlfriends are going to those particular schools. And a wide swath of students, as previously mentioned, simply choose so-called “medallion” schools based on nothing more than the school’s ranking or brand name.
Here are other ill-advised reasons that students have been cited as a top consideration in selecting their chosen colleges and universities:
It’s known as a “party” school
It has cute guys or cute girls
It was the campus with the nicest student tour guide
It’s where their older sibling or parents went to school
It’s in a popular city
It has a cool mascot or nice school colors
It has a great football team
None of these reasons should guide your decision-making when it comes to something as important as picking a college. In fact, some of these reasons shouldn’t be on the list at all, in terms of important factors.
Should the Football Team Matter?
But that last “criteria,” in particular, makes college expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy cringe. “Every time I hear a student say they want to go to a big university because of its football team, I think, seriously? You’re going to make an academic choice based on a football team — and you’re not even going to be playing on it? Really?”
Even for students who are passionate about sports, and love to attend games, O’Shaughnessy points out: “You’re going to attend football games during, maybe, six days or so during the school year. Snap out of it!”
O’Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com, believes that non-athlete students often select the wrong schools — and even wind up in debt — for something as careless as focusing on a university’s athletics program.
As a case in point, she cites interest in the University of Michigan, a popular choice for a lot of students from that state and elsewhere too.
“When you look at state schools like Michigan those schools are incredibly expensive,” she says. “Right next door, however, is a great school — the University of Minnesota — which is a lot more reasonably priced. It’s also in the Twin Cities, a nice area with lots to do. The weather is about the same in both states. But I’m convinced a lot of students won’t pick Minnesota because they’re not known for having good sports teams.”
O’Shaughnessy’s advice: “Look beyond the most obvious schools that everybody would recognize on a college sweatshirt.”
Picking the Wrong College: An Expensive Mistake
The consequences of making random, poor college choices are dire: far too many students wind up at institutions that aren’t a good fit for them academically, personally or financially.
In a best-case scenario, students must then muddle through life on a campus that’s not to their liking. In a worst-case scenario, students flit from one major to the next, or transfer schools, both of which often delay their graduation. Some students, unable to overcome the problem of a college mismatch, simply drop out of school altogether.
Interestingly, the problem of a poor college fit impacts students of all kinds, rich and poor and everyone in between; first generation and those whose great-grandparents went to college; city dwellers and urban kids; so-so students and academic standouts and more.
Even though the problem of poor college fit is universal, there are some striking differences between those at the opposite end of the income spectrum.
In this manner, the college selection process is often a tale of two worlds.
On the one hand, wealthy students might seem better positioned to find the “best” college for them. After all, they are statistically more likely to be students with higher GPAs and test scores.
So, in theory at least, they should have more college options. Well-to-do students also typically have had parents who went to college. And they tend to have greater access to a better range of support systems and educational advisors — including guidance counselors in their schools, relatives who’ve earned four-year degrees, and paid independent educational consultants who can offer advice.
Nevertheless, these privileged students still grapple with finding the right college fit; all too often they go to colleges and universities that don’t match well with their individual needs.
Poor Students at a Disadvantage
The same is true for their economically disadvantaged peers, even though they approach the college search process in a far different manner than wealthy students.
Improper college selection is particularly troubling for lower-income students, though, since they’re already disadvantaged in key ways. Chiefly, statistics show that low-income students are more likely than better-off students to leave school without earning a degree. This issue is compounded by an inadequate college search.
According to research from Public Agenda, “Many young Americans — and especially those who fail to get a diploma — barely go through any college selection process at all. Their options may be quite limited because they do not have the financial resources to go away to school and/or they are able to consider only those options that mesh with their job schedules and family responsibilities. In many instances, college selection is more constrained and happenstance than deliberate choice.”
“Among those who did not complete college, two-thirds say they selected their school primarily for its convenient location, nearly six in ten because its schedule worked with theirs and 57% because the tuition and fees were affordable.
A third based their choice on the academic reputation of the school and only a quarter on recommendations from friends and family,” researchers found. Only 33% of those students considered the academic reputations of their campuses as a major reason why they chose a given school.
In other words, most college dropouts (66%) considered convenience most important, rather than academics, in selecting their school of choice. By contrast, among students who did graduate from college, the primary reasons they chose for selecting their schools were as follows:
- I thought going to this school would help me get a good job soon after I graduated (57%)
- The tuition and fees were affordable (56%)
- I could specialize or major in the exact subject I was interested in (54%)
- The overall academic reputation of the school (54%)
It’s clear that there is a huge disparity in the factors driving the college decision process for students of different means.
Instead of going to the wrong school and risking a poor match — or even worse, risking a failure to graduate — all students would be far better served by taking much more time and being far more deliberate on the front end of their college search process.
In my next article, I’ll show you how to do just that – and how to pick the right college before heading off to school.