What's Really Important in College Selection?
For many students, entry into competitive colleges and universities is a, if not the, primary goal of their high school education. As a Jewish private-independent school we often find ourselves part of this culture. We want to share all of our students' acceptances, and, at the same time we try to push back by focusing parents and students on finding the right "fit" school through our college guidance program.
A recent survey and working paper by Challenge Success, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, synthesizes current research and concludes that rather than choosing a college based on selectivity, students should ask if they will be engaged at the college in ways that allow them to form positive relationships with their professors, have the opportunity to seek out mentors, apply their learning through long-term projects and internships, and find community.
The working paper begins by looking at what it calls the "flawed" ranking system that is presented by US. News and World Report, Princeton Review, and Barron's, among others. These rankings are based on arbitrary and not particularly meaningful criteria. Research indicates that differences between institutional ranks are often statistically insignificant, and more importantly, overlook measures of quality that are more important for long-term outcomes.
Mayhew et al. (2016) have noted in their research that there is little evidence to suggest over the past forty or fifty years that selectivity in college admissions has any relationship to student success. They write, "Accounting for student background characteristics, the weight of evidence simply does not support students' or policymakers' beliefs that a selective admissions process enhances student learning." (p.96)
So what factors might students and their families take into account instead of selectivity when choosing a college? What criteria will make a difference related to learning, financial, and other outcomes? The working paper suggests that "students who benefit the most from college are those who are the most engaged in their academics and campus communities and take advantage of the opportunities and resources their institutions provide." A 2014 Gallop-Purdue survey reports that six key college experiences are most closely linked with well-being, future job satisfaction, and thriving after their studies. The six are: taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting, working with a professor who cares about students, finding a mentor, working on a long-term project, participating in an internship, and being active in extra-curricular activities.
How can students best find colleges that will help them engage in these six key areas? There is so much variability between colleges because there is such a wide range of students. Given this variability, high school students and their parents would be wise to focus on finding the schools and universities that best match their interests and personalities. Students will be more engaged by finding schools that fit their interests and personal styles.
Beyond this individual finding, I believe there are some important takeaways for high schools and our college guidance departments. First, just as we have a wide variety of students, we need to expose students to a wide array of colleges to match their interests. The number of colleges that a high school routinely sends students to is probably a more important factor in success in the college process than the number of highly selective colleges to which its students are admitted. Another lesson is that both the college guidance process and high school programs in general need to help students gain a clear understanding of themselves and what they are interested in pursuing. Finally, high schools need to teach students how to engage in extra-curricular activities, how to seek out and develop relationships with their teachers, and spark an interest in being mentored and participating in internships. Students who enter colleges with these skills and choose schools that will engage them in their unique interests will find success during their university studies and post-graduation. Success in the college process ultimately is more about "fit" than about admittance to the most selective school.
**If you are interested in this topic further, you might consider Frank Bruni's book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be.