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USACollegeChat Podcast

Apr 7, 2016

We are going to start a new series today that I like to call “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.” Since it is April, we imagine that some families among our listeners are in the throes of having to decide where their kids are actually going to go to college next fall. With perhaps about three weeks to go till many colleges want students to choose and to commit to them, we are going to do a set of three episodes on making the college decision. The three episodes will focus on how good a student your kid was in high school and what his or her options probably are now.

Notice that I didn’t say how bright or how smart your kid is, because I firmly believe that there are plenty of bright and smart kids who somehow did not become the very best high school students they could have been. But, fortunately, there is time to correct that in college—both in undergraduate school and perhaps in graduate school. As Shakespeare might have said, “All’s well that ends well.”

Today, we will talk about college decision-making for average high school students. Of course, “average” these days doesn’t mean what it meant years ago, I think. We have talked about what looks like high school grade inflation, to us, though it might simply be a result of the increasingly prevalent practice of weighting grades in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and perhaps in dual-credit college courses. Two weeks ago, our guest Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, waxed eloquent about that practice and what he thought of it. We couldn’t agree more. (Check out his thoughts in Episode 67.)

So, by “average,” we are going to mean roughly students with B’s in their high school classes and some C’s and perhaps a few A’s. Their SAT scores might land in the 500 to 600 range for each subtest. Such a student, we believe, could have some options at this point in the admissions process, if he or she made wise choices when applying to colleges. Such a student could be considered an “average” student among high school students headed to college, though would likely be “above average” when compared to all high school students.

Next week, we will focus on above-average college-going students, and the following week on below-average college-going students. We will assume for these discussions that students have at least two colleges to choose from, but students could have as many as eight or 10 colleges to choose from. So, here are some of our thoughts.

1. Rejection by the First-Choice College

Let’s start by getting one difficult problem out of the way: What if your child has just been rejected by his or her first choice? I could offer some advice as someone who has seen that happen many times during the past 45 years. But I would rather read you some remarkably insightful comments from a young woman named Julia Schemmer, who was rejected by her “dream” school—UCLA. She is now a student in the Class of 2019 at the University of California, Riverside. These are the reflections that she offers your child (originally published in High School Insider and re-published by the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2016, as “Rejected from your dream school? Remember these three things.” Let’s listen to Julia:

  1. It isn’t your fault. When a college rejection letter comes in the mail, it is easy to immediately invalidate everything you have ever done and view your experiences as a high school student as incomplete or inadequate. It’s not true. Many universities have rigorous application requirements with expectations that are often left unknown to anyone but the admissions board. You could have the perfect SAT, the most extracurricular activities, or the best GPA, but it could be true that the college wasn’t looking for things like that. At the end of the day, you worked hard to get where you are, and that’s something your application letter won’t tell you.
  2. It’s not the end of the world. There are so many colleges and universities that would absolutely love to have you walk through their door. Whether it’s expanding your knowledge of other universities that may be better suited to your goals or working hard to transfer to your dream school, there are still opportunities to attend a great learning institution. When I decided to commit to attending a school different from my dream school, of course I was disappointed. However, I currently love the university that I attend and the major I am pursuing. If anything, UCLA will always be an option for my graduate school education.
  3. It’s not a reason to be mad at the people who did get accepted. Perhaps there will be someone at your high school that gets into your dream university. This does not justify being unkind or rude to them because they got into the school they did, nor does it excuse them being pretentious or bragging. Once graduation is over, everyone paves his or her own path. How they get there should not be criticized. We must love and support one another in a society that encourages anything but.

Although your college experience might not be what you predicted, that doesn’t mean you are anything less than the student you worked to be. Do not be fearful of rejection, but rather be empowered by it, for you are building your own empire brick by brick. (quoted from the article)

Brava, Julia! I bet UCLA is having second thoughts right now. 

2. Selectivity of the College

We are going to assume that, if your child is an average high school student headed for college, he or she might have acceptances from two or more colleges and that those colleges are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their selectivity. In other words, your child might have been accepted at a couple of selective private colleges (though perhaps not a most-selective college), at a couple of not-so-selective private colleges, at your public flagship university or another public university in your state, and at a public flagship university or another public university in another state. You might also have used a local community college as a safety school. In other words, an average high school student headed for college might have to make a choice among a bunch of very different options. But even if your child has just two options, the decision-making process is still quite serious.

Let’s put the financial aspects of this decision aside for a minute because there is plenty of time to worry about that. Let’s look first at your child’s options in terms of the selectivity of the colleges. Let me start with the conclusion: Your child should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. Are there any arguments on the other side of that decision? Of course, there are. They are just not persuasive.

Apart from the undeniable prestige of attending a more-selective college, we have said previously—and proved with a lot of data from various colleges—that graduation rates are higher at more-selective colleges. In other words, your child is more likely to finish a degree if he or she attends a more-selective college, and your child is more likely to finish that degree in a reasonable amount of time—ideally four years. It’s one thing to get into a college, and it’s another thing to get out. As we have said in previous episodes, getting out is just as important as getting in.

Practically speaking, what does that advice mean? It means that you should talk with your child about going to the toughest, most academically prestigious college possible. Not just because of the prestige factor, but because it will affect his or her future—both four years from now at graduation and likely a whole lot longer in terms of the classmates your child will have and friends your child will make and where they will all end up working many years from now.

What if that selective college is far away from home and you and your child wanted a close-to-home option? What if that selective college is private and you and your child wanted a public option? What if that selective college is located in an urban setting and you and your child wanted a rural or suburban option? What if that selective college is not faith based and you and your child wanted a faith-based option?

You are going to have to make your own choice, weighing all of these factors. You might want to go back to your deal breakers—whether you picked those using our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students) or using our discussion of them way back in Episodes 9 and 10. But I am suggesting here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this important decision.

By the way, the most selective college your child was accepted to might well be a public university—especially if it is your state’s flagship university or another state’s flagship university. As we have said many times, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public college. For a list of great public colleges, go back and listen or re-listen to the nationwide virtual tour we took you all on in Episodes 27–53.

And let me add one note about community colleges. If your child is at least an average student in high school, I don’t think that a community college is likely to be his or her best choice. I understand that there might be financial reasons to attend a community college. I understand that there might be family reasons to keep a child close to home and within commuting distance and that a community college might fit those circumstances very nicely. Nonetheless, the difficulty that many students seem to have in transferring from a community college to a four-year college really worries me. You might recall this quotation from an article in The Hechinger Report (“Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” February 8, 2016, online) that we discussed in Episode 64:

According to a recent report from Teachers College, Columbia University, 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree. (quoted from the article).

As we said then, these statistics are astounding. Let’s just say it again: 80 percent of two-year college students say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, only about 25 percent actually transfer to a four-year college so that they can do that, and only 17 percent finally get the degree that they transferred for.

Now, do average high school students headed for college perhaps have a better chance of making that transfer and getting that four-year degree than high school students who went to a community college because their grades were not high enough to get them into a four-year college? Probably so. But it still looks like a risk to me.

3. Your Child’s Dream School

What if your child has just been accepted by his or her first choice, but it just isn’t as good as another college that also accepted your child? Or, what if your child has just been accepted by a college that he or she fell in love with for whatever reason—a great campus, a great football team, or great dorms, for example—but it just isn’t as good as another college that also accepted your child? Well, you have a problem on your hands. It could be really hard to re-direct your child’s interest to the more-selective college.

Now, I know that many advisors would start talking to you about “fit” right now. We have even talked about “fit”—that is, how well your child will “fit” into the college community, based on brains or athletic ability or race or religion or socioeconomic status or any number of other things. I, too, want your child to fit into the college community that he or she chooses; I am just hoping that will be an academically strong and well-resourced college community, with great professors and with students who progress through it and graduate on time.

I don’t have any magic advice here. But I do believe that a good talk with your child—about what he or she hopes to get out of college and to do after college and which college can most likely help him or her get all of that—might be worth it. If the academically strongest college also has a great campus and a great football team and great dorms—and many do—then that is perfect, from my point of view.

4. Your Choice for Your Child

What if your child has just been accepted by the college that you really want him or her to attend, but that college is not your child’s first or even second or even third choice? Who wins? That is one of the worst problems I can imagine.

As a parent and as an adult, I would like to say that you should win because you have been around longer and seen more and perhaps even know more and are likely paying the bill. But I don’t think you can win in this situation without convincing your child that you are right.

We all have many anecdotes that prove this point:

  • There is the young woman who wanted to be a musician, but went to a science-oriented college at her father’s insistence. She lasted a year, did miserably, switched colleges, and is now a music professor at a university and world-class musician.
  • There is the young man who went to a small liberal arts college at his mother’s insistence. He lasted two years, did miserably, and switched to his father’s alma mater—where he had wanted to go in the first place. He excelled and went on to grad school.

College is hard, and it is almost impossible when you are not reasonably happy there. So, parents, I believe that you will eventually have to give in to what the child wants because, in fact, your child is the one who is going to have to do the work.

5. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. What if your child got a great scholarship—even a full ride—at a college that is not nearly as good as a more selective college that he or she was accepted by? Man, that is a hard choice. And, I have to tell you that it makes me very sad to hear kids and parents say, “Well, we are just waiting to see where she gets the best financial aid package.” Why? Because that might not be the best choice for her or the best choice period.

I am not going to say just go out and find a bunch of obscure scholarships that go begging every year (though I know that happens). I am going to say that the best possible college education is something worth investing in—whether that is through loans your child takes and/or though loans that you as parents take. We will do an episode about finances in a few weeks, but there won’t be any real magic in that, either. Paying for college is hard—especially paying for private selective colleges. That’s just one more reason we love those great public flagship universities.

6. Next Steps

Here is a great offer that you won’t get often. Call me and tell me what your child’s choices are and what your circumstances are. I will give you my thoughts on what might be best for your child. I do this all the time, and I would love to do it for you. Nothing is more important than making the right decision now. The next four years are critical.


Learn more in previous episodes...

  • Episode 9: What Are Some of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?
  • Episode 10: What Are Some More of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?
  • Episode 67: A Candid Interview with Harold Levy on College Access, Admissions, Counseling, and Scholarships!
  • Series 4: Looking At Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone (also known as the virtual tour of colleges)

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