Choosing a college

Choosing a College: The Heart, The Head, and Those Pesky Well-Meaning-but-Misguided Opinions

Choosing a college feels like an enormous weight to our students. They put so much pressure on themselves to make the “right” choice. As adults, most of us realize there is no ONE “right” choice – many could be a great fit. But what happens if a student doesn’t LOVE any one school? Or what about a student who loves a school/major program, but many outside voices are telling them that is the wrong choice? Making this giant leap (with reservations) into the unknown is scary.

All the boxes are checked. Or are they?

Ideally, our students find a college they love AND will serve them well AND that fits them academically, socially, and financially. Apply. Accepted. Where do I send the check?!

For some of our students, their favorite colleges check all the boxes—academically, socially, and financially. But those same students are having trouble “falling in love” with any one school and without the romantic connection, they’ll feel a void. They have heard the story over and over from their friends and from parents and other adults. They went on official visits, and the student guides probably talked about how they visited the campus and instantly fell in love.

We don’t have to have “love at first sight.”

Students should be released from feeling that pressure! Families have shared their stories with us. Sometimes kids really struggle with this…almost a “what is wrong with me?!” moment when they can’t seem to “fall in love” with any one college now that choice time has arrived. What do we do now?

The truth is students can still make smart choices about a college and be confident in their choice without some mystical love-struck moment. As parents, we can reassure our children that they will be fine. That hesitation the student feels is normal and healthy! Frankly, most students fall in love after they settle in on campus. They buy the sweatshirt. Move into their dorm. Became part of the community. Suddenly, they are IN LOVE, and they can’t imagine going anywhere else!

Another dilemma…misguided opinions

As parents, we know that sometimes the most powerful voice for our kiddos is the voice of their peers. These opinions can cloud our student’s thinking and muck with their “what is best for ME” thinking. We want our children to choose their college based on the best possible fit for them—not the biases of their peers or even other adults.

Here’s an example. A mom told us the story about her son. He had in fact fallen in love with a state school. Not a flagship university—those state colleges like Ohio State or Michigan—that are in high demand. He wanted to attend a state university with higher acceptance rates that would be a tremendous fit for him. The college had a strong program with a proven track record in the field he wanted. The cost was affordable for their family. He had “fallen in love” with the campus. All seemed perfect!

But when he told his friends about his choice, they almost all said the same thing. “Why would you choose to go THERE?!” The implication being that a less selective college was somehow a lesser choice. Suddenly, he was doubting himself. Giant yuck, right?

What can parents do?

Lots of articles have been written about the mistaken assumptions surrounding the benefit of attending a certain school. (We share info about this a lot.) Many believe that attending an elite college will guarantee a higher salary and more success in life. The statistics generally do not back this up (except in the case of low-income and minority students who see statistically significant benefits to their post-graduation salaries).

A key component in the “is it worth it?” conversation is Return on Investment (ROI). “That private school grad who gets to retire three years early can also expect to spend four more years paying off student loan debt than a state school graduate.” While an Ivy League grad may be earning a bit more, they likely paid substantially more in tuition and may not have earned any merit scholarships.

Another interesting fact…”A decades-long study published in 1999 by a Princeton economist and an Andrew Mellon Foundation affiliate found that students who were accepted into Ivy League colleges but opted to earn their degrees elsewhere averaged the same income as their Ivy counterparts 20 years after graduation.” Isn’t that interesting? Studies find that the success or failure of any one child in their career is less dependent on the college they went to and much more dependent on what the child did while in college. (For some more thinking about this topic, consider this video from author Malcolm Gladwell and Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni.)

With some facts and figures in hand, parents can reassure their teens that they are making the right choice for them.

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