Episode 95: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 3

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In our last two episodes, we have been talking with you about how to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options in case it is too long. As that list begins to get shorter, I am beginning to feel as though we should have let you keep it long. Well, not crazy long–but 15 colleges or so is still reasonable to me, at this point in the process. As we have said before, there are quite a few colleges out there that would likely be a good match for your teenager. Don’t feel that you need to take colleges off the list if you can imagine your teenager’s being happy there. You should not be aiming for some arbitrary number of options.

Again, let us remind you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Fill it out and file it now. Get whatever help you need to fill it out. But do it, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.

And, let us remind you again, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are coming up quickly–mostly around November 1. I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in offer it.

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list by looking at college selectivity–in other words, is your teenager likely to get in. In Episode 94, we took Step 2 by looking at the availability of your teenager’s current favorite major, the presence of any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and the attractiveness of traditional and innovative college term schedules or grading practices.

1. Step 3: College Enrollment Filter

Today, we are discussing Step 3 in narrowing down the list–if you think it needs to be narrowed down any further–and that is using college enrollment as a filter. In our previous episodes, we have looked at college enrollment in a variety of ways, and you might want to use some of those ways as a filter now.

First, does the size of the student body matter? You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the size of the undergraduate enrollment (and the graduate enrollment, if you think it is desirable to send your teenager to a college that also offers graduate study). Personally (and I think I might be alone in this attitude), I think that this filter is over-used by lots of teenagers and their parents.   I hear kids say things like this, “I think I would like to go to a small school. (Fill in the blank) university seems too big to me.” Okay, I get it. A big university might seem overwhelming at first to a high school senior. But perhaps that is because that teenager has had no reason at all to be in a large university setting, and I believe that a teenager has no rational basis for making a valid judgment about it.

Furthermore, I don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school, though I am sure it is tempting. I can understand that a teenager coming from a small public high school or a small private school might feel that he or she would get lost in the shuffle in a large university. I can understand that, for such a teenager, a large academic setting might be outside his or her 17-year-old comfort zone. But that is no reason to assume that such a teenager would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance.

When my husband was applying to college many years ago, his parents thought that he should go to a small liberal arts college. I am not sure why they thought that, but they did. As a result, he applied only to good small liberal arts colleges, and so, of course, he ended up attending one. He did well at it and liked it, but I believe he would have done equally well at a large university and would have liked it equally well. (By the way, he went on to Columbia University for graduate school and did not seem one bit fazed by its size.) In other words, size should never have been a filter for him–and I believe it should not be a filter for most teenagers. My guess is that many of you parents have some intuitive feeling about the best college size for your teenager (just as my in-laws did)–let’s call it a bias. I don’t know where you got it–perhaps from your own college education or from your own view about how outgoing and self-sufficient your teenager is or isn’t. Unless you have some kind of actual evidence that you are right, you might want to think twice about using college size as a filter for taking colleges off your teenager’s list.

Second, let’s look at size a different way, as we did in Assignment #5 (in Episode 85). There we took a closer look at both student-to-faculty ratio and class size (that is, how many students are sitting in the classroom when your teenager is trying to learn organic chemistry). As we said in Episode 85, student-to-faculty ratios are usually lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. Further, when you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressed. And I have to admit that there might indeed be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of, say, 18-to-1. If personal attention from and personal relationships with professors is something that is quite important to you or your teenager, you might want to think about a student-to-faculty ratio filter.

Let’s recap the class size discussion we had where I claimed that class size might just be a matter of personal choice. I said that I had preferred large classes in collegehuge lectures by a brilliant professor. But I allowed that many students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. What I truly believe is that there is a good chance that your teenager doesn’t know which of these he or she would prefersince most high school students have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors, or indeed small seminars that are intellectually demanding, for that matter. Does that make it difficult to choose class size as a filter? I would say that it does.

So far, it seems that I am arguing against a lot of these filters. All of these characteristics of colleges are good information to have, but maybe aren’t necessarily filters to use before even applying. Maybe I just hate for you to rule out too many options before you see where your teenager might be accepted and what decisions might be available to him or her next spring.

Let’s try a third filter, and that is whether the breakdown of the student body matters. You can look back at summer Assignment #4 (in Episode 84) and double check the percentage of part-time vs. full-time students, the male-female split, the variety and size of various racial and ethnic groups, and the states or foreign countries that students come from. For many students, none of these might be necessary as filters. However, your teenager might have some thoughts about attending a college where his or her own racial or ethnic group is only a very small minority of students. Or, your teenager might not want to attend a college that does not have a substantial mix of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as from many states and foreign countries. Attitudes about the inclusivity of students of all backgrounds might be linked strongly to your values as a family. Or not. Is your teenager more comfortable with students like himself or herself or with students just from your own geographic area? Should he or she be?

Now is the time to have that discussion with your teenager and to remember that college is one great time to broaden his or her views and explore key values about diversity. While you are doing that, take a quick look back at Assignment #10 (in Episode 90) to see whether you want to re-think your decision to include HBCUs, HSIs, single-sex colleges, or faith-based colleges on your list or to eliminate them at this time. Some of these colleges obviously offer less diversity than others, though they serve a different and perhaps equally valuable purpose.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, are you losing any colleges from your teenager’s list, based on filtering for overall enrollment size, the class size or student-to-faculty ratio, or the breakdown of the student body by race, ethnicity, gender, or some other important demographic characteristic? Try to let your teenager talk through his or her opinions about each of these, but let your teenager know that none of these has to become a filter.

In one sense, the fewer filters, the better. Each filter gives your teenager fewer chances to be happy next April.

So, Step 3 is done. Enrollment breakdown and size have been considered. Did you lose any colleges from your teenager’s list? I’m okay if you still have 15 or so on the list as we move forward to Step 4 next week. If you are already down to just a handful of colleges, you might want to take a few Steps back and reconsider some of those colleges that you have lost.

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