Episode 70: College Decision Time for Above-Average Students

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Last week, we started a new series aptly titled “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions” since April is a time for lots of families to figure out where their kids are actually going to college next fall. With just a couple of weeks to go till many colleges want students to make commitments to attend, we are in the middle of a set of three episodes on making the college decision. As we said last week, the episodes will be divided up according to how good a student your kid was in high school and what his or her options probably are now.

College Decision Time for Above-Average Students on USACollegeChat podcast

Let me repeat that I didn’t say how bright or how smart your kid is, because I 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.

Today, we are going to talk about college decision-making for above-average high school students. Last week, we talked about college decision-making for average high school students and about the fact that “average” these days doesn’t mean what it meant years ago. We discussed what looks like high school grade inflation to us, though it might be simply a result of the increasingly prevalent practice of weighting grades in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and perhaps in dual-credit college courses. Several weeks ago, our guest Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, took the words right out of our mouths when he gave his own opinions about weighted GPAs. (Check out his thoughts in Episode 67.)

By “above-average students” according to today’s standards, we are going to mean students with A’s in their high school classes and SAT subtest scores above 650 or even 700. Such students, we believe, are likely to have a number of acceptances from colleges at this point in the admissions process, if they made wise choices when applying.

Next week, by the way, we will focus on below-average students headed to college and how to make the right choice for them. So, stay tuned.

1. College Rating and Ranking Systems

Let’s start today’s discussion by examining college rankings and the variety of publications, corporations, and organizations that make them. If you have a really bright high school kid at home, the chances are good that you all looked at one or more of these ranking systems when you were choosing colleges to apply to. It’s actually hard to avoid them, especially since so many college websites proudly list their rankings by various systems on various quality indicators—from best national universities to healthiest college towns to greenest campuses to top cities for outside activities to most bike-friendly campuses and many more. And then there are the rankings of virtually every undergraduate, graduate, and professional academic department imaginable. Sometimes these rankings are quite impressive—or at least seem to be quite impressive.

Why do I say “seem to be”? Well, as often as you find rankings of one kind or another, you will also find articles written by admissions officers and journalists and educational researchers explaining why you shouldn’t pay attention to the rankings. Researchers talk about colleges that “game the system” by manipulating the data that they send in and that then figure into the rankings. For example, researchers say that some colleges encourage many students to apply, even if they don’t really have the grades and test scores to be admitted; but, that lets the college reject those students and then say how selective it is when admitting students. Ranking systems that use rejection rate or acceptance rate (depending how you look at it) could indeed be gamed by such a strategy. But that is just one example. You can certainly find more.

Let me say right now that we are not experts on college ranking systems and that we have not done any independent studies of them or, specifically, any analyses of their formulas for ranking colleges. As you might guess, all of the formulas are different—that is, they take into account different, but overlapping, sets of data about the colleges as well as sometimes ratings of the colleges by various qualified groups (like college presidents). Let’s take a look at one well-reasoned critique of one ranking system as an example.

Reed College, you might recall from our nationwide virtual tour, is an excellent liberal arts college in Oregon (check back in Episode 40). Reed’s website makes quite an elaborate and detailed case against the ranking system developed and promoted by U.S. News & World Report, which is one of the best-known systems around. Chances are pretty good that you have looked at one or another of the ranked lists compiled by U.S. News & World Report, and we have, too.

However, Reed no longer completes the nationwide survey that U.S. News & World Report administers to collect data from colleges in order to rank those colleges. Reed makes this statement on its website (see the website for the full story on Reed’s objections to the U.S. News & World Report ranking system):

Reed is committed to sharing accurate, reliable information with prospective students and the general public. We also recognize the usefulness of independent guides in helping prospective students identify potential colleges. For that reason, Reed does provide information to several college guides—including ones by Barron’s, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Peterson’s, Colleges That Change Lives, and the Princeton Review—because we believe they do a better job of describing the experience, student culture, and academic environment that Reed provides. And, yes, we occasionally repost news items ranking us as #7 on the list of nerdiest colleges or #17 on the list of outdoorsy colleges—after all, we enjoy wacky lists as much as anyone. (quoted from the website)

So, what’s the point here? The point is that college rankings by various organizations and researchers and publications are fine to look over and consider and even enjoy. But because they are all likely flawed in different ways, you can’t use any one of them as the way to make the final choice of a college for your child. Just because a list, even a prominent one, ranks one college in fifth place and another college in tenth place doesn’t necessarily mean that the first college is actually better than the second one. Period. And that’s not even addressing whether it is a better college for your child.

And yet, on the other hand, if every publication you can find puts a college your child is interested in attending in the top 10 or 20 on a list, it is likely that the college is a good one. It’s what qualitative researchers call triangulating the data. In other words, looking at data collected using various methods can give us a more valid, more fully comprehensive view of the subject being evaluated—in this case, colleges.

Just to underscore how difficult it is to rate and rank colleges objectively and accurately, let’s look for a minute at President Obama’s attempt to do so. Here’s a recap of what happened to his administration’s plan, according to the following excerpts from Michael D. Shear’s article last September in The New York Times:

President Obama … abandoned his two-year effort to have the government create a system that explicitly rates the quality of the nation’s colleges and universities, a plan that was bitterly opposed by presidents at many of those institutions.

Under the original idea, announced by Mr. Obama with fanfare in 2013, all of the nation’s 7,000 institutions of higher education would have been assigned a ranking by the government, with the aim of publicly shaming low-rated schools that saddle students with high debt and poor earning potential.

Instead, the White House … unveiled a website that does not attempt to rate schools with any kind of grade, but provides information to prospective students and their parents about annual costs, graduation rates and salaries after graduation.

Mr. Obama praised the new website …, saying that by using the new College Scorecard, ‘Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education.’

But the new website falls far short of what the president had hoped for. When he announced the plan …, Mr. Obama put colleges on notice that schools performing poorly on his rating system would eventually lose access to billions of dollars in federal student aid money.

‘I’m proposing major new reforms that will shake up the current system,’ Mr. Obama said at the time. ‘Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren’t graduating.’

Aides to Mr. Obama had described him as privately demanding from his staff bold action that would hold schools accountable, especially those that had low graduation rates and poor postgraduate income potential — even as they continued charging students tens of thousands of dollars each year to attend….

But the plan quickly ran into fierce opposition. Critics, including many of the presidents at elite private colleges, lobbied furiously against the idea of a government rating system….

…[M]ore than a year later, the new scorecard … does not attempt to rank colleges. And a fact sheet distributed by the White House makes no mention of linking the availability of federal student aid to a government ranking of a specific college.

…[T]he new scorecard — which can be found at collegescorecard.ed.gov — will allow students and parents to compare schools based on measurements that are important to them. Using the website, for example, a student might search for schools with average annual costs of under $10,000, a graduation rate higher than 75 percent and average salaries after graduation of more than $50,000 per year.

The data is based on students who have received a federal loan or grant to attend college, but officials said their economists believe it is representative of all students. And they said the new government data offers critical information that is not available elsewhere….

You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loan,” Mr. Obama said….

Administration officials said the data that powers the scorecard was also being freely shared with companies and other organizations that already offer online college search tools. White House officials said three such sites — ScholarMatch, StartClass and College Abacus — already have begun using the data to enhance the information they provide.

Officials said they hoped the information would help students avoid making poor choices when deciding where to attend college. (excerpted and quoted from the article)

Regardless of whether you agree with the methodology that the Obama administration’s College Scorecard is using (and I am not sure that I do), what’s the lesson here—besides the obvious fact that college administrators don’t want the federal government to rate colleges, especially if those ratings are tied to access to federal student aid?

The lesson is that it’s hard to rate and rank colleges. It’s hard to do fairly. It’s hard to do if you are a private organization. It’s hard to do if you are the federal government. Nonetheless, it will continue to be done by various groups, and people will look at those rankings, and they will make judgments based on them for their own children. We would say that you should be careful when you use ranking systems to make those judgments and that you should consider the results of at least three ranking systems before judging any college.

2. Selectivity of the College

Let’s look at selectivity of the colleges that have accepted your child. We are going to assume that, if your child is an above-average high school student headed for college, he or she probably has 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 highly selective private colleges, at a couple of selective private colleges, at your public flagship university, and at a public flagship university in another state. You might have used a couple of other public universities or less-selective private colleges as safety schools. You might even have used a local community college as a safety school. In other words, an above-average high school student headed for college might have to make a choice among a handful of quite different options.

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, and it’s the same conclusion we offered last week to parents of average high school students: Your child should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. If you have an above-average high school student on your hands, you will hopefully agree with that conclusion and so will your child. After all, this is what your child has worked for throughout the high school years.

And yet, I had a parent say to me last weekend, “We are thinking that a public state university will be good enough for her undergraduate years. She wants to go to medical school, and sending her to a great university will be more important then.” “Really,” I said. “Then what was killing herself to earn that 4.3 GPA all about? And what if she changes her mind and does not pursue medical school? Now she has missed her chance to go the best college that would take her.”

As we said last week, apart from the undeniable prestige of attending a highly selective college, we have said and shown in previous episodes that graduation rates are higher at academically better colleges. In other words, your child is more likely to finish a degree if he or she attends a highly selective college, and your child is more likely to finish that degree in four years. And, in the long run, getting out on time saves money—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

Your child’s choice of a college will indeed affect his or her future—not just four years from now at graduation, but probably 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.

Back in Episode 59, Marie and I talked about an excellent new report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, entitled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. When Harold Levy visited with us in Episode 67, we talked about the report again, including some of the statistics that we found shocking. Here is one I cannot get over:

  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s why your child should go to the most selective college that accepted him or her. Going to college really matters, and your choice of a college really matters, too.

You might want to go back to your deal breakers in choosing a college for your child—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 saying here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this perhaps life-changing decision. Your child’s great academic record and hard work deserve nothing less.

By the way, the most selective college your child was accepted to could be 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 university. For a list of great flagship universities, go back and listen or re-listen to the nationwide virtual tour we took you all on in Episodes 27–53 or look at any number of popular lists that rank public institutions. You will see the same names come up over and over again, including these: the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; the University of Virginia; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the College of William and Mary; and the University of California, Los Angeles. And there are quite a few more. If your child got into one of them, that is worth thinking really hard about.

And let me add one note about community colleges. If your child is an above-average student in high school, I don’t think that a community college is likely to be his or her best choice. We said the same thing last week about average students. We understand that there might be financial reasons to attend a community college. We 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, as we have said several times, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is astoundingly low (The Hechinger Report, “Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” February 8, 2016, online):

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).

Certainly, above-average high school students headed for college would 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. But I still do believe that a community college is not the optimal choice for an above-average high school student.

3. Your Choice for Your Child

Here’s a question we asked and answered last week: 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?

I am simply going to refer you to last week’s episode, because this problem is the same regardless of whether your child was an above-average, average, or below-average high school student. My answer was simply this: As a parent, I wish you could win, but I don’t think you can win without convincing your child to come over to your side.

Your child is the one who is going to have to do the work and be happy about doing it. You aren’t. By the way, for all of you parents who have younger children coming up through high school and just starting the college process, here is the lesson to learn: Don’t let your child apply to colleges you don’t want them to attend. It’s as simple as that. If you are satisfied, even if not thrilled, with every college on your child’s application list, then you will be satisfied with whichever one is your child’s final choice.

4. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. One of the most frustrating conversations I have is with parents who are just waiting to see which college gives their child the best financial deal. But what if that is not the best choice for the child? What if your above-average student gets into several highly selective private colleges that anyone would be thrilled to attend, but the best financial deal is from a satisfactory, but not a great, public college in your home state?

Well, here is my super-unpopular advice: Do what it takes to send your child to the best college that will take him or her. Why? Because the best possible college education is something worth investing in—even if that means loans your child and/or you take. And because taking out loans is scary for many reasons, we want to make sure that your child is in a college that he or she will be happy in and will actually graduate from in four years. That’s part of the deal with your child. We are going to do an episode about finances in a couple of weeks, but it won’t really solve this problem for you. I wish it could.

5. Next Steps

So, here is what I said last week. 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 the best choice from the college options your child has. It’s just our thank-you for listening. What could be more important for your family than making the right college decision now?

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 40: Colleges in the Far West Region, Part II
  • Episode 59: What’s Happening to Low-Income Smart Kids?
  • 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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  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
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