Episode 129: What You Don’t Know About Colleges

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It’s getting serious now. It’s almost August, and kids who are headed off to their senior year in high school are realizing that it is time to get moving on investigating college options more thoroughly. There are a hundred things we would like to tell you and your senior about that and just as many pieces of advice we would like to give you two. In fact, we will do a lot of that in this new series that we are starting today and that we like to call Researching College Options. But in this episode we are going to focus on one really simple fact that is true for almost all high school seniors and their parents–just one fact. (Wait for it.)

We have been reminding you this summer to go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. We think that it is an easy-to-use workbook for a high school senior to fill out as he or she starts–and finishes–the great college search. However, I have given up on telling you to go get the workbook and will, instead, try to hit at least some of its high points over the next weeks. If you find you need more help, then get the workbook. It’s the best under-$10 purchase you will make this month. We promise.

1. College Fit Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about an Education Week article by Liana Loewus entitled “Pitching Rural, Low-Income Students on Private Colleges.” If you missed Episode 127, go back and listen because it might offer a new perspective on private colleges that would be useful to your family. One thing that the article did (though this was not the article’s main point) was to highlight the notion of “fit”–that is, how good a fit is a college for your senior. We quoted the following passage from the Education Week article about the importance of the academic and social and cultural fit of a college for a student:

In the 2016 book Matching Students to Opportunity: Expanding College Choice, Access, and Quality, Jessica Howell and her co-authors explain that college fit, and in particular going to a school that matches a student’s academic credentials, is positively associated with earning a degree.

“By and large, we know that when students enroll in a college that isn’t a good fit for them, that’s usually because they didn’t consider colleges that would have been a better fit,” Howell said in an interview. “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.” (quoted from the article)

We might argue for a long time about all of the aspects of a college that help determine its fit for a particular student, and we might never agree on which are the most important ones. We would undoubtedly start with the degree of academic rigor (and some people might stop right there), and we might continue with things like the size of the institution, the demographic make-up of the student body, cost, and maybe even the type of setting and the geographic location. We will talk about all of that some time–perhaps even in the next few weeks (and, by the way, all of those aspects of college fit are discussed at length in both of our books).

But today, we want to focus on the last part of that Education Week quotation from Howell, not the first part: the fact that students can end up in the wrong college for them simply because they did not consider the right colleges. In other words, they are in a college that is a bad fit as a result of not investigating and applying to colleges that would have been a better fit. As Howell said, “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.”

We could not agree more. In the upcoming summer weeks, we would like to help you help your senior open his or her eyes–early enough so that there is still plenty of time to act on what he or she finds out. And just as important, parents, we would like to help you open your eyes as well, and that might mean opening your eyes to consider colleges you have never even heard of. As we are fond of saying, there are thousands of colleges in the U.S. (and even more when you add in all of the colleges in other countries, which we love to talk about here at USACollegeChat), and the chances that you know all of the right ones for your senior are slim to none.

Now, I am not trying to be mean about this. Marie and I are the first to say that, even though this is our business and has been our area of expertise for quite some time, we learn something new from almost every episode we do. We learn about new academic programs, new recruiting strategies, new admissions requirements, new funding sources, new grading policies, new housing configurations, and on and on and on. And, by the way, we also learn about new colleges–well, not new colleges, but rather good colleges that we just didn’t know anything about. That’s what happens when there are thousands of colleges out there. No one can know about all of the good ones. Not you and not us. So, don’t take it personally.

Just agree to come along for the ride and make every effort to get your senior to come along for the ride, too. Try to give up your preconceived notions of the right college fit for him or her and make every effort to get your senior to give up his or her preconceived notions, too. As Howell said, it’s all about opening your eyes and seeing your options.

2. How To Open Your Senior’s Eyes–and Yours

In the opening chapter of our book, which was written as a user-friendly workbook for teenagers, we talked about how to open your senior’s eyes. In the book, we write this for any teenagers who will listen about how to solve their lack-of-information-about-almost-all-colleges problem:

The simple answer is just to ask a guidance counselor at your high school. You would think that guidance counselors would know quite a bit about lots of colleges and that they could pass that information on to you. Here’s why that usually doesn’t work.

Let’s start with public high schools. As you probably already know, most public high schools don’t have guidance counselors who are dedicated to working only on college counseling. That means that your guidance counselors, with caseloads in the hundreds, have to help students with college applications while dealing simultaneously with students who might be in serious personal or academic trouble. That’s an overwhelming job, and that is exactly why most high school guidance counselors cannot help you enough when it comes to exploring many college options, narrowing them down, and finally choosing the perfect colleges to put on your list.

Some public high schools–and even more private schools–have designated one of the school’s guidance counselors as a college counselor, specializing in college placement and perhaps financial aid and devoting all of his or her time to helping students undertake and complete their college searches. If your school has a college counselor like that, you are lucky indeed. Of course, searching through hundreds of colleges to find the right ones for you and then working through those college applications (including all of the essays) is the work of a lot of hours–at least 20 hours and really closer to 40 hours, we would say. Does your counselor have that much time to spend with you? Unfortunately, probably not, even if you attend a private school.

What if you are homeschooled? Without the help of a school guidance counselor or college counselor–even for a very limited amount of time–you might feel more at a loss than your friends who attend public or private schools. Should you expect your parents to know everything you need to know about a wide array of college choices? No, you shouldn’t. Respecting your parents’ opinions about colleges is certainly important, even crucial. But it is not likely that they are experts on the many, many colleges here in the U.S. (and abroad).

All high school students need to get help from somewhere or someone. We believe that this workbook is a good way to get some. That’s why we are talking to you now. We want you to have a way to find out the information you need about many colleges so that you will be in the best possible position to compare those colleges and then to make the right decision about where to apply and, eventually, about where to attend. While you will undoubtedly want and need some adult advice in thinking through the many options, what you need first is information–and a lot of it.

If you already have a list of colleges you are interested in, you will need information about each one of those. But, just as important, you will need information about colleges that are not yet on your list–including colleges that you have never considered because you didn’t know they existed. That’s not your fault now, but it will be if you don’t take steps to correct it. So, let’s get started. (quoted from the book)

Whether you use our workbook as a way to learn how to get the information you need about a broad enough selection of colleges is not the issue here. Believing that you need way more information than you have right now is the issue. We talk to so many parents and kids who come to us with their minds made up and hearts set on a college or a type of college or a location of a college. We think that they are rarely right.

By the way, that goes for parents who have never been to college themselves either in the U.S. or in their home countries; parents who started, but didn’t finish college; parents who have an associate’s degree; parents who have a bachelor’s degree; parents who have a master’s degree; and parents who have even more graduate and professional education than that. In other words, thinking you know the right college for your kids–and not really knowing it–knows no education, socioeconomic, or demographic boundaries.

And that goes for high school students, too. Marie and I have told story after story here at USACollegeChat about the students in the Early College high school we co-founded in New York City. We would like to think that these were kids who should have known more–after all, they were already taking real college courses on a real college campus with real college professors across the street from our high school. And yet, they didn’t. We would like to think that some of the workshops we ran for them and for their parents would have done the trick. And yet, they didn’t. What it took was individual counseling sessions with each student and often with the parents. Some of these stretched out over days and weeks and months.

One of our favorite stories, which gave rise to a rule that we like to follow, is of a young man we’ll call Ryan. Ryan sat down with Marie and me in our office at our high school and told us that he would like to apply to one of the State University of New York campuses in upstate New York. And let me say that it was in the middle-of-nowhere part of New York. Now, that was okay with us, but we suspected Ryan had no idea where that college was or what that rural setting was like. So we asked him to tell us where he thought the college was located. He admitted that he had no idea, and that didn’t seem to be a problem to him.

Those of you who listen regularly to USACollegeChat know that Marie and I love kids and parents who can get outside their geographic comfort zone. We will talk more about that next week. But we do believe that a kid should know where a college is if he or she intends to apply. And so the Ryan Rule was born: You can’t apply to a college if you can’t find it on a map. Parents: That turns out to be harder for a lot of your kids than you might think.

3. What’s the Point?

So what’s the point of today’s episode? It’s this simple fact that I told you this episode would focus on: Parents and seniors, you don’t know anything about most colleges. Simply put, both of you need more information about a lot of colleges. As Howell said, “We need to open up students’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.” She should have said, “We need to open up students’ and parents’ eyes early in the process so they know their options.”

If I have made you a believer, we will start the eye-opening next week. If you think you already have enough information about colleges, give me a call and let me prove to you how wrong you are.

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