Episode 160: The Best Advice About Choosing a College

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Well, most of you have made a decision about what college your kid is going to by now.  You all have sifted through the acceptances (hopefully, there was more than one), weighing all manner of things while making the decision.  However, I know there are still a few of you out there who have not quite decided yet.  I know because I talked to a mother just a few days ago who was in the throes of helping her daughter make her decision.  Our meeting was quite accidental; she was the physician’s assistant in the surgeon’s office where my daughter and I were contemplating my daughter’s emergency knee surgery.  As soon as the physician’s assistant found out what I did, after I had volunteered some unsolicited advice, she engaged me in a longer discussion of her daughter’s options.  I was happy for the distraction.

1. Here We Go Again

Her daughter had an array of options:  several okay acceptances, but not from truly selective colleges; an acceptance from Fordham University; and wait list spots at Wake Forest University and Colgate University.  The mother, I’ll call her Leeann, had planned to keep one of the okay colleges on the list, as her daughter pursued the wait list possibilities.  Leeann said that she and her daughter had not visited Fordham (although they live right here) because her daughter had hoped to go away to college and try something different from New York City.  Guess what I said?

It’s the advice we always give (and this is the third episode this month that we have given it in, so maybe we think it is really important):  Send your kid to the best college he or she got admitted to.  Period.  Wherever that college is and whatever it costs (to the degree that it is humanly possible).  That’s the college to choose.

The okay college that Leeann was keeping on her daughter’s list is not nearly as good as Fordham.  Yes, it is a college that, for some reason I cannot quite explain, has become popular here in the East, though it is in the South.  It is out of town, which was her daughter’s preference, and Leeann was worried that her daughter would come home every weekend if she stayed in New York City for college.  My daughter, who, as you loyal listeners know, went to Fordham for the joint dance program with The Ailey School of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, assured Leeann that her daughter would not be coming home every weekend because there was plenty of fun and engaging stuff to do on campus.  My daughter assured Leeann that she had had plenty of friends in Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business (where Leeann’s daughter would be heading) and that they had not gone home on the weekends.

We continued to chat about the two wait list options–both very good options and both very unlike Fordham in location and size.  And both head and shoulders above that other only-okay option that Leeann had been keeping on the table.  When we left the surgeon’s office, Leeann had taken the only-okay college off the list and was headed home to talk to her daughter about taking a look at Fordham’s campus (which is quite lovely and self-contained, by the way, even if it is in the middle of the Bronx).  I can’t wait to hear the results.

It continues to puzzle me that so many parents do not seem to put the academic caliber of the college as the number one criterion for choosing among several colleges in the final analysis.  Perhaps it is because parents do not know how to judge the academic caliber of a college or how to compare colleges on that all-important criterion.   So, parents, do whatever it takes to figure out which of the colleges your kid got into is the “best” college.  And, by “best,” I mean best academically, according to its national reputation or, as a second choice, its regional reputation.

2. Some Support for Our Position

While I don’t feel any real need for support for our position (other than the decades of life experience in the world of higher education we already have), I am always glad to get some.  The support I want to share with you now is from a study by Noli Brazil and Matthew Andersson, published in March in the Youth & Society journal.  The study was then reported on by Sarah Sparks in the Education Week blog Inside School Research.  This is absolutely not what I expected and, therefore, it is particularly interesting.  Here are Ms. Sparks’s opening paragraphs in her article:

Even a high school valedictorian can feel anxious becoming just one out of hundreds of top performers at an academically competitive university. But a new study suggests that students who have lower-achieving classmates in college than they had in high school show more symptoms of depression.

The study, published in the journal Youth and Society, finds [that,] . . . contrary to common wisdom, students with lower-achieving classmates in college had a rough freshman year.

“When you think of it, a college transition is made of three parts: where you’re coming from, where you end up, and the difference between those things,” said study co-author Matthew Andersson, an assistant sociology professor at Baylor University, in a statement. He suggested increased depression may come because “the downward transition might trigger a sense of being a misfit. That might trigger having fewer friends or less of a sense of attachment to the college or university that one is attending.”

Researchers from Baylor University and the University of California, Davis, tracked data from more than 1,400 high school students who later attended four-year colleges in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which provides information about students’ mental health as well as their school-level achievement data. They controlled for students’ demographic, academic, and mental health backgrounds, but also school factors, such as whether students attended public or private schools, the concentration of students in poverty, and parent education levels in the schools. (quoted from the article)

So, here are the statistics, in the words of the researchers themselves:

We find that depressive symptoms increase by 27% for students experiencing lowered peer ability across their college transition, relative to no substantial change in peer ability. Meanwhile, heightened peer ability in college links to neither diminished nor enhanced student well-being across the transition. (quoted from the researchers’ Abstract)

In other words, sending a bright kid who is accustomed to bright classmates in high school to a college that is filled with kids who are not as bright increases the odds that the bright kid will end up showing some signs of depression, for whatever reason.  Now, will it make that bright kid seriously and chronically depressed?  Not necessarily, but it can increase the chances that the bright kid will show some symptoms of depression.  Is that a chance you want to take, parents?

This question is directed to the parents we talk to who are considering sending their son or daughter to an easier college in order to get good undergraduate grades in preparation for medical school or law school or some other graduate degree.  According to these researchers, that strategy–which we don’t agree with in the first place–could be especially harmful if that son or daughter is coming from an excellent high school with lots of smart kids or if that son or daughter is literally part of a group of smart kids in whatever high school he or she attends.  And it always seems that the parents who suggest this strategy are the ones who have been pushing their kids the hardest in high school to excel–which puts their kids in the worst spot for experiencing the kind of depression that the researchers are talking about.

And here’s one more wrinkle, as Ms. Sparks reports:

“[U]ndermatching,” in which high-achieving high school graduates choose a college less rigorous than their academic qualifications would predict, is often a particular problem for students from low-income or traditionally underrepresented groups or first-generation college-goers. Prior studies have found that students who are undermatched in college are significantly less likely to complete a degree. (quoted from the article)

So, here’s one more reason that low-income, traditionally underrepresented, first-generation-to-college kids are having a tough time making the leap into the collegiate education that they deserve.  It’s bad enough that they might exhibit signs of depression more often than they otherwise would have; but, you have to wonder whether that alone could make it less likely for them to complete a degree.

This study, like all studies, had some limitations.  For example, all of the students included in the study attended four-year colleges, so these findings do not necessarily apply to students attending two-year colleges.  That could be an interesting future inquiry since I believe that lots of good students attending two-year colleges are undermatched in an effort by families to save money during those first two years of college.  This new study should make you think about that.

Ms. Sparks ends on a note to high schools, commenting that “. . . the study suggests schools could help their students think more optimistically about how well they would fit at academically competitive schools” (quoted from the article).  That advice could be to counselors and teachers as students make up the list of colleges they plan to apply to or that advice could be to counselors and teachers who might be in a position to influence a student’s choice of a college after the acceptances come in.  Certainly, in the second case, we would hope that counselors and teachers do exactly what we do here at USACollegeChat–which is to encourage kids to see themselves at the best college they got into, to surround themselves with students who are as smart as possible, and to adopt the study habits and work ethic of successful college students.

By the way, parents, this does not mean that only the best 40 or 50 colleges in the U.S. are suitable for providing high-achieving peers for your son or daughter.  There are plenty of great public flagship universities, small liberal arts colleges, and private universities in addition to the highest-ranked institutions.  There are plenty of great colleges where the other students will have a positive effect on your son and daughter.  That is what academically rigorous colleges are like.  That is what the “best” colleges are like.

So, I promise that this is our last episode on this topic for this year–as long as you agree to send your kid to the best college he or she got into.  That’s why you all have worked so hard for so long.  If you are trying to make a decision right now and need some advice, give me a call.  As we always say, it’s free, so you don’t have to take it.  Let’s chat.

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