Episode 157: Thinking Through College Acceptances

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This is the first episode in our new series, fondly entitled Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because we always do some episodes about college decision making at this time of year, and it seems that the decisions just keep get harder and harder each year for all of you parents and your kids.  Of course, we know that it might be your first decision time, and we are wishing you the best of luck!

1. A Case from the Real World

So, here is something that happened last week:  It is a case from the real world.  I had a great conversation on the phone with a loyal listener to our podcast and reader of our books, who wanted some advice about her son’s big decision.  Let’s call her Betty (the names have been changed to protect the innocent, though I would really love to give her credit for how well she is thinking through this decision).  First of all, I want to thank her for being so complimentary of our work.  She explained that she did not go to university in the U.S., so she found our explanation of higher education here to be especially helpful.  I also want to note that Betty lives in California, which justifies the name of our podcast, USACollegeChat.  We have tried hard to reach parents from coast to coast, and we are truly happy that it seems to be working.

Let me start by saying that Betty has done everything right.  As she wrote about her son in an email to me, “He had a lower GPA, but a good SAT score, and has been very fortunate to get into almost all of the schools he applied to, partly thanks to your advice about putting together a realistic list of schools, including a few stretches and some safety schools.”  And as a result, her son now has a choice of a variety of colleges that he has been admitted to:  public and private, large and small, North and South and East and Midwest, selective and less selective, liberal arts colleges and true universities.  Here are his choices:  the University of New Hampshire, the University of Pittsburgh, Miami University (of Ohio), Indiana University, St. Olaf College, Elon University, George Mason University, and American University.

Betty’s question was, quite simply, where should he go.  Betty told me that her son is interested in international relations, with a focus on Europe (where Betty is from originally) and would like to spend some time studying abroad and some time in Washington, D.C.  This week, they are going on a second round of college visits to see the colleges he has been accepted by that he hasn’t seen yet (as we recommend, whenever possible, visit after the acceptances so you can save a bit of money by not visiting colleges your child does not get admitted to).

I proceeded to talk through the list of acceptances with her and came down in favor of American University, which was the last college her son had heard from.  I told Betty that, if he had not been admitted to American, I would have advised him to choose Indiana University–because, as she knew from listening to our episodes, we love public flagship universities; because it has a fine reputation; because it has many study abroad opportunities; and because it has a School of Global and International Studies, where her son was accepted into its version of an honors program.  However, given her son’s interest in studying in D.C., American seemed like the better choice.  Its reputation is excellent, it has nationwide visibility, and its location in D.C.–with all of the opportunities there might be for international-related activities, internships, and part-time jobs–seemed to me to outweigh the pluses of a flagship university campus in exurban Bloomington, Indiana.

Betty then asked me a string of questions, which were important and relevant to her son’s decision.  It was a little bit like a “greatest hits” of issues we have dealt with in past episodes, and she did a good job of recounting them and questioning me about them.  For example, she noted that American does not guarantee housing after freshman year, and she worried about what housing might be like in D.C. if her son had to get his own.  I agreed that the lack of a housing guarantee in D.C. especially might not be ideal, but that it would not keep me from sending a child to American, given its other advantages.  I assured her that kids move off campus all the time and that he might be able to stay on campus anyway.

Next, Betty noted that American’s graduation rate was not as high as other colleges on his list.  A good point, I said, but I would be okay with that if I were relatively sure my son would stay on track and graduate on time.  Besides, I said, American is a great school, regardless of its graduation rate.  Betty commented that her son had always done better when challenged, and I agreed that is often the case and that her son would definitely be challenged at American both by the university and by his classmates to do his best.  I did add that I would give him a firm lecture about that before he left!

Next, Betty asked my opinion about a gap year, which her son had brought up, but not recently.  She remembered our episode about it and, coming from Europe where gap years are more common, was not totally against it.  I repeated that all the research said gap years were great choices, and yet I would still tell Betty to send her son directly to college.  He already seems to know what he wants to do, and he does not seem to need to spend a year figuring that out.  I suggested that he might take his “gap year” after his undergraduate education and before his intended graduate work, when he might really be able to do something significant abroad.

Finally, Betty wondered if her son would be better off in a slightly less challenging college, where he could potentially get better grades in preparation for getting into a top-tier graduate school, where he hoped to pursue international affairs or business.  This was my favorite question of those she asked.  And I gave the answer we have always given here at USACollegeChat:  Send him to the best school he got into.  In my opinion, that is American.  I commented that plans change, things happen, and graduate school might not be his choice four years from now.  Why suboptimize his undergraduate education because you are hoping for the best possible graduate education?  What if that graduate education never comes, and you just wasted a great undergraduate opportunity–for nothing?

I feel so strongly about his advice, and I seem to give it a lot.  (I am not talking about Betty now, by the way.  Betty and her son are going to be fine.)  But I do see parents thinking that a mediocre public education is fine at the undergraduate level because it is a way to save money for a top-quality private graduate school or medical school or law school.  Well, as many people have said and claimed credit for, tomorrow is promised to no one.  Please, parents, let your kid to take the opportunity to get an outstanding undergraduate education if it’s offered, even if it costs a little more.  No one can predict where your kid will be in four years, what he or she will want to do then, and whether he or she will have the grades and test scores to get into a phenomenal graduate school.  As the Romans said, carpe diem–seize the day.

2. What You Should Do Right Now

So, in this episode, I wanted to give you a firsthand look at how we think through things once those acceptances come in.  If you have a question like Betty’s about your kid, please drop me an email.  All the advice is free, and you don’t have to take it.  But let’s chat.  Why do you think we call it USACollegeChat?

By the way, if you want more general advice, feel free to go back and listen to the advice we gave last year and the year before.  It’s still quite relevant.  Try Episode 114 from last year and Episode 69, Episode 70, and Episode 71 from the year before.  They never get old!

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