Changing tides

At the speeches I would give at Southern California high schools shortly after starting Collegewise in 1999, one line was always guaranteed to get a big laugh from the crowd.

“Southern Californian kids aren’t going to arrive at the breakfast table one morning and announce to their parents, ‘Today is the day I apply to the University of Alabama.’”

No insult intended to ‘Bama fans or alums. That joke had nothing to do with the quality of the school, the education, or the experience. Kids and parents everywhere have preconceived notions about particular colleges, geographic regions, and even weather, many if not most of which are not rooted in facts. At that time, in those zip codes, for those particular families, the notion that a student would travel all the way to Alabama to attend a big public school in lieu of attending others that were closer, more prestigious, or both, just seemed nonsensical to them.

I’m happy to report that the joke would never work for those same audiences today.

Alabama gets applications from plenty of Southern Californian students today, including those from high schools where I’ve made that joke. And many of our former Collegewise students from those and other areas have gone on to Alabama and now happily sign off their emails to us with “Roll Tide!

The school didn’t fundamentally change during that time—the students (and parents) did. It only takes a few students to break new college ground and report back to their younger former classmates to start a trend for the next wave of applicants. We saw the same shift in 2006 with the University of Texas (not coincidentally after their Rose Bowl win over USC in what’s been called the greatest college football game of all time).

No college is right for every student, and there are lots of perfectly legitimate reasons why you might write off a potential school as being not-for-you. Effective college matchmaking means deciding which schools are left off, not just included on, your list.

But as you choose colleges to apply to, it might be worth asking yourself if any of your “deal-breakers” would change if one or more of your older classmates were currently attending and enjoying their experience. Too cold, too small, don’t like the Midwest or the South or the Northeast, no basketball team, no fraternity/sorority scene, too middle-of-nowhere, can’t handle big cities—whatever your reasons for leaving a college off, would they change if your good friend were already there and loving his or her experience?

Happy reports like those may not change your mind at all, and that’s OK. But considering whether or not such a testimonial could make a difference might help you distinguish between a genuine preference and a preconceived notion.

Perceptions can change over time. And there’s nothing wrong with embracing or even initiating a change in the college tides.

A great college is…

If you’re a senior compiling your college list, focus on three things that make a college a great choice for you.

1. One where you can get in.
I’m not suggesting that any school that wouldn’t admit you simply isn’t a good choice. But much as a romantic interest isn’t your soul mate if the interest isn’t returned, a college isn’t a truly great choice unless it’s one that admits you. Make sure the bulk of your list is comprised of schools that will say yes.

2. One where you can be happy and successful.
I know this means looking into the future. But if you approach your college selection process with this metric in mind, you’ll move past things like rankings, what your friends tell you, and other factors that don’t actually measure the quality of a college for you.

3. One that you can afford.
You don’t know for sure whether or not you can afford a college until your financial aid package arrives. But as I’ve written before, affordability is part of fit. And a strong argument can be made that a college isn’t a great college for you if you end up taking on debt that will take you 30 years to pay off after you graduate.

Put another way, if you can’t get in, if you won’t be happy and successful once you’re there, and/or if you can’t pay for it, it’s not a great college. It might still earn a place on your list. But approaching your college search with these three elements in mind will ensure that you end up with plenty of great college options from which to choose.

The strike by lightning approach to college lists

It’s difficult for a student with straight A’s, near-perfect test scores, and more honors and awards than most adults rack up in their lifetime to understand why they need less selective schools on their list than whatever “Top Ten” US News added to their list that year. Counselors routinely field questions from these students and their parents that are some version of, “I’ve done everything I was supposed to do—if I’m not a strong candidate, who is?”

It’s a fair point. And most colleges in this country will trip over themselves to admit that student. But there are around 40 schools (out of more than 2000) where the math—the number of applicants, their record of achievement, and the number of available spots—is just unassailable. Mathematically, nobody has a good chance at those schools.

So what should those students do instead? If you fall in love with schools that make that list, take your shot at a few where you really fit (and not just because you love the name). But balance that list with other schools from the “We’ll trip over ourselves to admit you” category. Put a different way in this article by high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor (emphasis his):

Lots of people want to go to the same college. Not everyone will get in. That could be you. 95% of the students applying to Ivy League schools can do the work, and hundreds—that’s hundreds—of valedictorians—were denied admission to the Ivies this year. You may never need Plan B for college, but you’ll need to know how to make a Plan B once you’re in college. Now is the time to practice. Find two schools you’d love to attend where your chances of admission are greater than getting struck by lightning. They exist.”

In-state tuition at an out-of-state school?

According to data collected by the College Board, the average tuition and fees to attend a public university are roughly 1/3 what they are to attend a private college, as long as that public university is in your home state. As soon as you venture to new state territory, the costs more than double at most public schools.

So it’s common for families to wonder if it’s possible for their student to establish residency at an out-of-state public school, thereby availing themselves of the cheaper cost for in-state residents.

Unfortunately, while establishing in-state residency is not impossible for a student, as this Consumer Reports piece explains in detail, the lengths to which you would need to go to even have a remote shot are pretty drastic.

If college costs are a concern and you want to make sure you have some viable public university options, first, do all the things that make you more admissible to most colleges—take challenging classes, get good grades, spend some (not inordinate) time improving your test scores if necessary, etc. Also, complete the FAFSA and any other financial aid forms your chosen colleges require. Now here are a few tips to help you choose appropriate schools.

1. Consider your in-state options first.
The easiest way to get an advantage is to leverage one that’s already available to you. Depending on your state, most public universities are not only cheaper for their residents, but also easier to gain admission to than they are for students applying from out of state. If your state doesn’t have public schools that appeal to you, remember that applying to a college is not the same as actually attending that school. In this case, you’re giving yourself more potentially viable options. That’s almost always a good thing, especially when you’re concerned about the cost of college.

2. Apply to schools that are most likely to admit you.
This is a great strategy for both private and public colleges. The more likely a college is to admit you, the more likely you are to get a financial aid boost, a practice called “preferential packaging.” Every year, our Collegewise students receive generous and often unsolicited offers of financial aid and scholarships—including from out-of-state public schools—simply because their college lists included some schools where they were strong applicants and were almost certain to be admitted. This is yet another reason why it’s so important to file your FAFSA—many schools will not consider you for preferential packaging without a FAFSA on file.

3. Consider a regional exchange program.
Some public schools enter into agreements with each other that allow students to attend neighboring states’ public schools at a discounted rate. Read to the bottom of the article referenced above and you’ll find links to those programs.

Almost all colleges are more expensive than they used to be. But public universities can be some of the best available bargains in education if you (1) choose your schools carefully, and (2) apply for financial aid.

Seek good certainty

I always remind seniors who are weighing their college options that some amount of uncertainty is normal. That’s the way that big decisions like a job offer to accept, a new city in which to live, and yes, a college to attend, work. You do as much research, thinking, and soul searching as you can. Then you just have to listen to your gut and make the leap. Don’t assume that you necessarily have to be sure of this choice when you make it. In fact, that uncertainty is often the best part.

But here’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of–if you take on student debt to attend college, you’re going to have to pay it back.

Whether you’ve already identified your post-college career or haven’t even chosen a major yet, life will always offer uncertainties. You may fall in love with a career option that just doesn’t pay very well. You may not get into the graduate school that you hoped to attend. You may land–but then be laid off from–your dream job. These things happen even to smart, successful people. And if they happen to you, you’ll need to be flexible and resilient to keep going.

But your student loan lenders will not care how your plans changed or what unforeseen circumstances you’re facing. They’ll want to be paid on time. That’s a certainty.

This is not an argument that you shouldn’t take on student debt. I think that’s a decision that each student needs to make with their family. And there are certainly adults who are not only thankful that they took on the debt required to attend the college they did, but also very proud that they responsibly paid off what they owed.

But the more debt you assume when you start college, the bigger role that debt will play in your post-college plans. The less debt you owe, student loan or otherwise, the more freedom you’ll have to make decisions based on what’s best for you, not best for your creditor, and the more flexible you’ll be able to be when life has different plans. And nobody ever lost sleep at night because they just didn’t owe enough people more money.

The more uncertainty you have about your college and your future career, the more cautious you should be taking on a potentially large debt to attend. If the only thing you can be sure of today is that the school you’re about to choose won’t leave you with hefty student loans when you graduate, that’s a pretty good certainty to carry with you to college.

Take the “good” out

If you were to strike the word “good” from your vocabulary, your evaluation of colleges would be a lot more precise. And a lot more honest.

It’s a good college.

They have good professors.

It’s got a good pre-med program.

Take out the “good” and start over. Now what are you going to say?

Don’t cheat and use “amazing” or something else positive but completely nondescript. The idea here is to be precise.

Maybe your answer is, “It’s a famous college.” Maybe it’s, “It’s a college with the major I want, it feels like the right size for me, and it gave me a financial aid package that made it affordable for my family.” Both those answers are more accurate and more honest than “good.”

They have professors who teach instead of research.

They have several professors who’ve won the Nobel Prize.

They have professors in the economics department who regularly depart campus to advise on national economic policy in Washington D.C.

You’ll put your knowledge—and the strength of the professors—to the test when you go further than “good”:

70% of their students who apply to medical school get accepted.

It’s got special study abroad programs just for pre-meds so they don’t fall behind in their science studies.

It has a full-time health careers advisor, six professors students can go to for pre-med advice, and a list of former students who’ve gone to medical school and are willing to speak with undergraduates about their experiences.

Who’s more likely to know exactly what to expect from their future pre-med program—the student who stopped at “good,” or the student who dug deeper and replaced “good” with some real facts?

No college can guarantee you a successful outcome. You’re not shopping for a car you can research on Consumer Reports or experience for yourself with a lengthy test drive. You’re shopping for a four-year experience predicated in large part on your willingness to make the most of what’s available to you while you’re there. Part of being comfortable with your college list means accepting a certain amount of uncertainty. That’s why when so many people refer to a “good” college, what they really mean is a “famous” college. Famous is an easy shortcut to what you think must be “good” when you don’t know what else to base that choice on.

But the best way to improve your odds of turning that uncertainty into a four-year record of learning, growth and fun is to match the student with the right colleges. And to do that, you’ll have to consider those things that you can be certain about. Don’t accept reputations, rankings, or prestige as proxies for quality. Dig deeper into the offerings. Crash them against what you hope or expect to gain from your college experience. Seek advice from people who know you well and want the best for you. Then make your choices confidently knowing that you sought clarity where it existed and accepted uncertainty when it did not.

The parts of any college that deserve to be described as “good” will be much clearer once you take the “good” out.

Old message, new source

One of my recurring themes on this blog is that it actually isn’t that hard to get into college–that all the bad news about fierce competition, declining acceptance rates, and other angst-inducing stats is true for only a comparatively short list of schools from the over 2,000 colleges available.

Here’s an article from financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, who seems to be expanding his topic touch now that he’s doing so for Cappex: Myth: Getting into College is Really Hard.

Among the most salient stats:

  • Only 70 colleges have a less than 25 percent chance of admission.
  • Only 6 percent of colleges admit less than a third of their applicants.
  • There are only 14 colleges where less than 10 percent of applicants are admitted.
  • On average, students apply to six colleges and are admitted by three to four colleges.

Bottom line: there’s a college out there for you even if you aren’t in the top, or even close to the top, of your class. You just have to be willing to look for it.

Sometimes the best way to get an old message across is to send it from a new source.

How to make sense of college rankings

When it comes to utilizing college rankings, I’ve found that most families fall into one of three camps:

1. Those who don’t consider them.
2. Those who plan to incorporate rankings into a variety of college factors.
3. Those who let the rankings drive their entire college process.

I’ve seen some families in that third camp arrive at their first Collegewise meeting with the latest US News college rankings in hand, intent on limiting their college list to schools in the top ten. Matchmaking, shmatchmaking—it’s all about getting into the highest US News-ranked school possible.

I don’t expect to effectively convince many folks in that camp to migrate, but if you’re on the fence and might be willing to take a realistic look at whether or not any agency can effectively rank colleges, please check out Frank Bruni’s latest New York Times piece, How to Make Sense of College Rankings, the gist of which can be found in this excerpt:

“But [college] rankings cannot take into account, and thus ignore, the most consequential part of the equation, which isn’t some spell that a given school casts on a student but a student’s commitment, curiosity, daring. An obsession with rankings obscures and invariably minimizes this essential truth.”

Great together

At a wedding I attended last weekend, the groom’s father gave a heartfelt toast about raising a sensitive, happy boy who truly blossomed when he went to college. Dad spoke about watching his son throw himself into Model United Nations, spend a summer interning on the South Side of Chicago doing outreach for those who were HIV positive, and eventually emerge four years later a confident, mature, socially-conscious leader.

Today, the groom is a successful public relations executive. He’s also a proud graduate of Willamette University in Oregon.

This isn’t a post touting Willamette specifically. College applicants need to find the schools that best fit them. And just because Willamette sparked this transformation in the groom doesn’t necessarily mean it would have the same effect for every student.

But prestigious colleges don’t hold patents on transformative college experiences. A student who is eager to learn, grow, and take advantage of the opportunities that college has to offer can fulfill those goals at plenty of different schools. For you, that could be Willamette, Williams, Wabash, or Wesleyan.

It’s not about getting into what the rankings say are great colleges. It’s about finding schools where you can be great together.