What is a successful college education?

Before he became the president of Reed College, John Kroger served in the Marine Corps (which he joined at 17), studied philosophy at Yale, was a federal prosecutor, wrote a bestselling book (Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves), and was Oregon’s attorney general. For me, that’s more than enough success to qualify him to address the question, what is a successful college education?

Whether or not a student has aspirations of attending a college like Reed, I hope parents and their students will spend five minutes reading—and a lot more time discussing—Kroger’s piece, What is a Successful College Education?

As Kroger writes:

“In the United States, we spend a massive amount of time and energy figuring out where our kids should go to college. We start worrying about it their sophomore year of high school and never really stop until we write the first tuition checks. We read guidebooks, consult counselors, pay for test prep, visit campuses, and even—in extreme cases—hire college search consultants. But after all this effort to find the perfect college, we spend virtually no time talking about what students should do once they get there. We equip them with bows and arrows but identify no targets.”

I agree with all of his assertions within the article. But even if you and your family do not, you almost certainly hope to get some kind of return on your college investment. Why not consider thoughtfully not just what you want your particular return to be, but also what the student can do to maximize it?

Cushioning the blow

Patrick O’Connor wrote this post specifically for students who receive bad admissions news from highly selective schools.  But the overarching message at the end is an important one no matter where you’ve applied to college. It does matter where you go—just not in the way you think.

And I’ll add this—the things that matter can be found at plenty of schools that don’t crack the US News Top 50 list.

Our guide to planning college visits is here

If you’re planning on visiting colleges as part of your search, Collegewise counselor Casey Near just finished The Collegewise Guide to College Visits, covering topics like:

  • Frequent planning mistakes and how to avoid them
  • Advice on how to spend your time on (and off) campus
  • Questions to ask admissions counselors and current students
  • Advice for planning summer visits

There’s even some great advice for colleges on how to improve the campus visit experience for the most important party—the student.

It’s an excellent guide that I think will help any family get more out of this important college search ritual.

You can download your free copy here.

Don’t act on headlines

I keep seeing articles referencing the most lucrative college majors, colleges with the highest average starting salaries for graduates, and other headlines focused on a purported measurement of the return on a college investment. Given the rising cost of college and the alarming levels of student debt, I think it’s wise for any family to treat it as you would any large investment. Investigate the options. Think hard about what you hope to gain from it. Don’t assume that spending more will automatically pay more back. That’s what truly savvy college shoppers do.

But as you apply rigorous research to your college process, please don’t use these headlines to drive it.

Just because you major in x or attend college at y doesn’t mean you will necessarily reap the reported benefits mentioned in a 300-word article. If it did, those colleges would be singing from their Ivy-adorned rooftops about how much happier and richer and more successful their graduates are.

No matter what your future career, your college and your major are just two items on a very long list of things you’ll need to be successful, including drive, aptitude, experience, talent, and maybe even a little luck. The college-related items are not as responsible for the outcome as their disproportionate price might make them appear.

I’m not suggesting that your college and your major aren’t important—your odds of becoming a successful engineer decrease to almost zero if you don’t (1) attend a college with an engineering program, and (2) choose that as your major.

But you likely wouldn’t risk up to $150,000 on a stock you learned about from one short online article alone. And you probably shouldn’t do so with your college, either. Headlines make for enticing news, but not always for informed choices.

The most important factor in collegiate outcomes

The Washington Post reports that the Gallup Organization is launching an initiative to certify colleges based on the well-being of their graduates, defining well-being as “being happy, comfortable, and satisfied” in five areas: “social, financial, sense of purpose, connectedness to their community, and physical health.” Gallup’s research indicates that “just 11 percent of college graduates are thriving in all five dimensions. More than one in six aren’t thriving in any.”

But the part of the article I most want to share here is the acknowledgement that students must bear some responsibility for their collegiate outcomes—or the lack thereof.

Part of the problem is that too many students are sleepwalking through college. They don’t engage enough in what researchers call “high-impact practices” — internships, undergraduate research, study abroad, writing-intensive classes, and interactions with professors. Many of these activities come outside the classroom, and as a result, are often not graded or measured as part of the formal degree program for which students are paying tuition.

One of my mantras here is that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it. Yes, I use this phrase in part to remind students (and their parents) that they don’t need a famous college to become successful.

But the far more important message within the mantra is that you are in charge of your college experience. It’s what you do in college that matters. Dedicated professors, research, internships, activities, opportunities for learning and growth—none of it will mean anything unless you take advantage of them while you are there. And that’s true whether you attend Harvard of Haverford, Princeton or Purdue, Stanford or Stonehill.

Yes, the specific offerings and their relative quality may differ from school to school. But you are a constant. You control your own effort, initiative, interest in learning, and drive. The key to a fulfilling and successful college career—and an equally thriving life afterwards—is to bring those traits with you to the right school for you, then work in tandem with your new college to make the most of the experience.

By all means, be a savvy and discerning college shopper—this is a big investment in more ways than one. But don’t forget that you will be your own most important factor in determining your collegiate outcome.

“I can always transfer…”

Many seniors rationalize their choice of which four-year college to attend with some version of, “I can always transfer.” But invoking the transfer option, especially before you ever arrive on campus, can be both helpful and harmful, and it’s important to leverage that tool in a productive way.

Note: I’m not talking about students who plan their transfer ahead of time as part of a grand collegiate plan.  I’m referring to those applicants who do not intend to transfer, but casually mention it as their intended course of action if they ultimately don’t like the college they picked.

First, yes, you should take comfort in the fact that you are not signing, literally or figuratively, a binding four-year contract with your college. Many students successfully transfer and find themselves at colleges that are better matches than were their first choices. I’ve written before that it’s not realistic for an eighteen-year-old to be completely certain about a college choice until you officially become a student on campus, and it’s nice to know that whatever you decide, you have an available escape hatch to deploy if you change your mind.

But I’ve often said that going to college is a lot like getting married. You and your college are entering into a relationship. And just as you wouldn’t rationalize the decision to get married with, “What’s the worst that can happen?—I can always get divorced,” it’s risky to use transferring as an excuse not to take this decision as seriously as you should.

Making your college relationship work will take commitment. Some days will be wonderful. Some days will be difficult. You’ll need to stay committed even when you’re in a rough patch. Expecting and preparing for that work makes it more likely that you’ll also get all the joy and rewards that can come with it. Sure, breaking up is an option, but probably best reserved for those cases where, in spite of your best efforts, it becomes clear that you’re just not right for each other.

My recommended approach? Do everything you can to get your college decision right the first time. Be thoughtful and deliberate, as if breaking up in the future were not an option. And be prepared to do your part to extract the maximum value from whichever college you attend. That sense of commitment is the foundation of eventually becoming a college graduate who raves about your undergraduate experience.

But at the same time, take comfort in the fact that in the unlikely event that you find yourself unhappy and unfulfilled, if things just aren’t working out in spite of your best efforts, you can make a different choice. You can start over. And for the rest of your life, nobody will ask where you started college—they’ll only ask where you finished.

Use the transfer option like a fire escape. Do what you can to avoid ever having to use it, but find comfort knowing that it will be there in case of an emergency.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

As much as I preach about the importance of finding the right college fit, it’s not realistic for most students to be certain of their collegiate match until they actually become a college student.

There are just too many variables when evaluating colleges to expect to be certain with your choices. Our former students who rave about their experiences point to things like particular classes or professors, new friends, activities they’ve discovered—many of which cannot be researched or planned ahead of time.

What you want out of college, the environment that feels right, your goals and interests and what you do for fun—all of those things can change between the ages of 17 and 22 (how many adults could say that they didn’t change at all during those pivotal years?).

And there’s almost no way to effectively test-drive a college. Yes, you can research and visit and even talk to current students. But you won’t really be able to experience it until you begin your life as a student and a member of that community.

So if this certainty is so elusive, why push the search for fit?

A student who really takes the time to consider what they want out of college, who ponders what interests them, what they’d like to learn and do and experience, will understand themselves better than the student whose search begins and ends with, “I want to go to an Ivy League school.”

A student who investigates and then evaluates potential colleges will be a savvier college shopper. She’ll have strong points of comparison and contrast as well as a much better sense of the available options.

A student who is engaged in the college search will take appropriate ownership of the process. They’ll refine their gut instinct about schools and do a much better job of imagining themselves on each potential campus.

And most importantly, a student who searches for the right college fit is taking appropriate ownership of what might be their first major life decision as an adult. Isn’t that better than just trusting college rankings or simply applying to schools that parents select?

Uncertainty is a normal part of big decisions. It’s hard to be completely sure until the aftermath of the choice. But much like in romance, job hunting, and just about every other major decision that affects our lives, the more thoughtful and deliberate we are, the more confidence we have in ourselves and optimism we have that things will work out somehow, the more likely those thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Right the first time

The first student who ever enrolled at Collegewise (way back in 1999) went from a C average in high school to an A average at the University of Arizona. Much of that turnaround had to do with the opportunity to study what interested him and his conscious decision to simply apply himself. But he also discovered a secret academic weapon by regularly visiting professors during their scheduled office hours. Many of those faculty members mentioned that he was the only student who ever visited during those times. And as he put it, “When you just talk to professors about the material, they’ll tell you what’s going to be on the test!” By the time he graduated, he had close relationships with over a dozen of his former professors, many of whom advised him on his next step and even served as references.

He, and thousands of Collegewise students since then, have only reinforced what all of our counselors believe:

1. Great educations take place at lots of colleges, not just the prestigious ones.

2. No matter what benefits a college may tout, it will be up to you to make the most of the experience while you’re there.

3. What you do while you’re in college will ultimately be more important than where you do it.

4. You’re more likely to thrive when you attend a college that fits.

5. The right college can help just about any student learn, have fun, discover talents, and reach their potential.

Thanks, Nick, for being the first Collegewise kid, and for setting a great example for the nearly 8,000 who’ve joined us since.

Be your own matchmaker

If someone gave you a list of the ten people at your school who will make the best husbands or wives one day, a list based on a complex algorithm factoring in everything from GPA to personality traits to fashion sense, would you believe it? Even more importantly, would you act on it and try to get into a relationship with someone based on a rating of their future spouse potential?

The decision to marry someone is a big deal, certainly one that should be made thoughtfully and deliberately. You should absolutely seek out the qualities you would appreciate most in a life-partner. But you probably wouldn’t put too much stock in someone else’s ranking list no matter how scientific it might be.

That’s a bit how I feel about making college decisions based largely on college rankings or even the new College Scorecard which has been getting a lot of press lately.

The decision of where to attend college is a big one. And as college costs continue to rise, so do the stakes. I hate the idea of a student taking on mountains of debt to attend college without a clear sense of how or even if they’ll ever be able to pay it back. And I love the idea of giving families more, accurate information so they can make informed choices about what college to attend and how much to pay to do it.

But like a marriage, a college education is a complex thing. Someone else’s perfect match might never be the right fit for you. And just as both partners need to commit to making a marriage work, wherever you go to college, you’ll need to do your part to extract as much value as possible from the experience.

So yes, avail yourself of the increasing volume of information about particular colleges. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices. But please remember that there’s a big difference between evaluating a college and measuring one. You’re better off being your own matchmaker than you are relying on someone else’s list.