Episode 161: College Wait Lists

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As we said last week, most of you have made a decision about what college your kid is going to by now.  You all have compared and contrasted the colleges that accepted your son or daughter and made the best decision you thought you could.  However, there might be one or two of you still holding out some hope for coming off the wait list of your kid’s favorite college choice.  I know that some of you have even put a deposit down on a sure thing while not entirely giving up hope on the long shot that is the wait list.  This episode is not so much about giving you advice, but rather about making you feel not so bad.

While we are not experts in the practice of wait listing, I can tell you anecdotally that I have seen kids this year and last year not get into colleges from the wait list when those kids were absolutely qualified to attend those colleges.  I imagine we all have stories like that.

1. Are Wait Lists a Waste of Time?

Let me read you some excerpts from a short piece that was heard recently on National Public Radio (NPR) on All Things Considered, as presented by Clare Lombardo and Elissa Nadworny.  Here we go:

[High school seniors have] opened their mail–or, more likely, an online portal–to finally hear decisions from colleges. But many didn’t get one. The number of students placed on college waiting lists has climbed in recent years, leaving students hoping for the best–even when they might not have any reason to hope at all.

“Many students … think they’re very close to getting in, and that there’s considerable hope for them to be admitted to the college,” says Cristiana Quinn, a private college admissions counselor in Rhode Island.

That’s not the case. In the spring of 2017, Dartmouth College, a small Ivy League school in New Hampshire, offered 2,021 waitlist spots to applicants. Of the 1,345 who chose to stay on the waitlist, not a single person got in. The University of Michigan offered 11,127 potential freshmen a place on their waitlist that spring–4,124 students accepted spots on the list, and 470 eventually got in.

The odds aren’t as slim elsewhere: At the University of Wisconsin?Eau Claire, 100 of the 450 students on the waitlist were accepted in 2017. And some schools, like North Carolina A&T State University and the University of Alabama, don’t use a waitlist at all. According to 2017 numbers from the National Association of College Admission Counseling, about 40 percent of colleges use waitlists. (quoted from the NPR piece)

Well, those numbers are arresting.  According to these statistics, top-tier colleges with long wait lists admit very few of those candidates–maybe 10 percent, at best.  Less-selective colleges might offer better odds, but my guess is that kids are not holding out hope for those spots the same way they are holding out hope for spots at great colleges or near-great colleges.  You don’t want to advise kids not to stay on the wait list if they really have their hearts set on someplace, but I think you also have to help kids understand just how uphill that climb is going to be.

And lest we forget, there’s this:  Colleges are not really ever doing anything to help the applicants; whatever they are doing with wait lists, they are doing for themselves.  It’s like Early Decision and Early Action and various phases of both.  While some of those plans help applicants, there is no doubt that colleges are getting a lot out of them, too.  Otherwise, colleges wouldn’t be offering them.

The NPR piece notes this:

The schools that do make applicants wait for a final decision do so to keep their options open, says Quinn, who works with students and families during the college application process.

“They want to have a very large pool to choose from–so that, for instance, if they don’t have a student from South Dakota, they can pull one from South Dakota. If they don’t have a student who plays the oboe, they can pick an oboe player, and on and on,” she says. When schools keep their admission rates low, it impacts school rankings and reputation–plus, intentional or not, the more students who almost get in are now thinking, talking and tweeting about them. (quoted from the NPR piece)

Well, that’s particularly annoying, I think.  Putting kids on the wait list as a way to get free PR?  Really?  I so hope that is not true, but I fear it might be.  Back to the NPR piece:

Quinn recently penned an open letter to college admissions officers on a private email list of admissions professionals.

“I beg you to stop the insanity,” she wrote. “Stop what you are doing to kids and parents and move to a modicum of reality next year when you create your waiting lists.” She says all of her students awaiting spring decisions were wait-listed at at least one school–and many of them were wait-listed at many. That hasn’t happened in the past.

“[Students] are not fully exploring the colleges where they have been accepted,” she says. Instead, they hold out hope for the colleges where they’ve been wait-listed. For low-income students, who depend on aid for tuition assistance, holding out for an offer becomes unrealistic because colleges often have little if any financial aid left over by the time they turn to the waiting list. (quoted from the NPR piece)

It’s hard to disagree with that advice to colleges.  Maybe colleges could just adopt some rule of thumb, like we will put three times as many kids on the wait list as we took in from the wait list in the previous year.  Then, kids on the wait list would have an idea of how good their chances were, and many kids would not be put on the wait list to begin with and could go on and make the best choice from their actual acceptances.  I won’t hold my breath that colleges are going to do this, but I honestly don’t see how it would hurt them–at least the top tier colleges, which are going to fill their freshman classes with qualified kids, no matter what.

2. What To Do If You Are on One

First of all, I think it should be clear that an applicant should not stay on the wait list of a college that the applicant is not truly interested in.  Why?  Obviously, it makes it harder for the kids who really do want to be on that list, and it distracts the student from paying attention to the options that he or she is more interested in pursuing.

Not surprisingly, many counselors advise students on wait lists to write letters to the admissions officer at the college to declare their ongoing interest in the college.  I don’t see how that can hurt, but clearly it doesn’t often help too much either, especially at top-tier colleges.  Such a letter would probably sound a lot like one we described back in Episode 148, when we discussed an appeal letter following a deferred decision in an Early Decision or Early Action situation.  Let’s recap what might go into such a letter (while this advice is likely too late for anyone still on a wait list right now, it might help all of you parents of juniors as you get ready for this time next year).  Here are some reasonable points to make in a one-page typed letter, which can be sent by email, but should also be sent in print by regular mail.

First, the applicant has to say that the college is his or her first choice and that he or she will attend, if admitted.  Ideally, of course, that would be true.  I am sure that many students say this, even when it is not true.  You will have to make your own moral judgment here.

Second, the applicant should show a solid understanding of the academics of the college and of how he or she will fit into the academic world there.  Naming a specific department, specific major, specific courses, and/or specific research opportunities are a good idea.  Make sure your kid knows exactly what the name of the department and major are inasmuch as they are different at every college, for some reason. Emphasize the notion of “fit” between the student and the college.

Third, the applicant should restate (since this information is likely in the original application or application essay) how he or she might fit in with specific extracurricular activities, including volunteer or service opportunities, performing music and drama groups, and sports at the college.  This part of the letter should be focused–just in case the college needs an oboe player.

Fourth, the applicant should mention any major accomplishments since the original application was submitted, especially new SAT or AP test scores or academic honors.

Fifth, the applicant should mention any close family connection to the college–including parents or grandparents who went there and/or siblings who went there or are there right now.  This mention should ideally explain what the student has learned from those personal connections and why that makes the college so much more attractive to him or her.  I believe that including this information in an understated way helps the college believe that this student is really more likely to enroll, if admitted.

3. What Else To Do If You Are on One

But the main thing to do if your kid ends up on one or more wait lists is to think hard about any acceptances he or she did get.

Visit those colleges, if you haven’t done so yet, perhaps at an accepted students day.  A great college visit at one of those colleges could make up for a lot of wait listed options.  If your kid falls in love with a college he or she has already been admitted to, game over–in a good way.

If you and your kid can’t visit, investigate your options as best you can.  For example, ask your high school counselor if any alums have gone to those colleges so that your kid can talk to someone who has experience there.  Do what you need to do to make those colleges come alive for your kid.  Because waiting around for wait listed options isn’t likely to work.

And, finally, here is my very best suggestion if your kid is not happy with his or her acceptances and is not likely to get in from a wait list, consider Richmond, The American International University in London.  Loyal listeners will know that one of my sons did his undergraduate work there and that my daughter did her master’s degree work there.  It is a fantastic university.  Really.  The good news for you now is that Richmond accepts applications until July 1 for a fall start.  Both my kids loved Richmond, and all of my experiences there–from sitting in on classes to meeting with professors to talking with administrators to chatting with students–have been excellent.  And, believe me, I am not easy to impress.  So, if your child is unhappy and you think London might be the answer, consider Richmond.  Costwise, it is far more affordable than many private universities in the U.S.  And, did I say it was in London?  Seriously, if you take a look at Richmond, you will not regret it.

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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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Episode 159: Going to College in California?

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This is the third episode in our series, Decision Time Again, because, of course, it is actually decision time for lots of parents and kids out there.

Although USACollegeChat is headquartered on the East Coast, we have some loyal listeners in California, and California colleges, including its public universities, are increasingly popular among students back here in the East.  So, with that in mind, we have today’s episode.  It is designed to make some of you feel better if your senior applied to a California college or two and did not get in.  It is also designed to help those of you just starting on the application process with your juniors in case you want to consider California public universities–or not.

1. The California System

Although we have described California’s elaborate system of public higher education in many previous episodes and in our books, let me do it quickly one more time now.  California’s public higher education system has three tiers:  the University of California (abbreviated as UC), the California State University (abbreviated as CSU), and the California Community Colleges.

The most prestigious tier is the UC system, which has nine campuses (plus UC San Francisco, which offers only graduate and professional programs):  UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz.  We have spoken many times about UC Berkeley, clearly one of our nation’s finest colleges, public or private, with its long history of excellence.  We have also spoken many times about UCLA, which has risen in prestige in the past 50 years, is increasingly popular nationwide, and, some say, is now as difficult to get into as UC Berkeley.  The other seven campuses are less famous outside of California, but that does not mean that they aren’t excellent schools in their own right.

The middle tier is the CSU system, which has 23 campuses, spread from Humboldt in the north to San Diego in the south.  Many of these colleges are not well known to those of us who are not from California, but that does not mean that they aren’t good schools.

The third tier is the California Community Colleges system, which comprises 114 colleges, with over 2 million students.  Understandably, these two-year institutions are attended mostly by California residents who live near the campus they are attending.

Now, a note to California:  It is especially confusing to those of us who do not live in your state to wrap our heads around the fact that, for example, there is a UC San Diego; a CSU at San Diego, known as San Diego State University; and a University of San Diego, which is a private Catholic university.  So, those of you non-Californians interested in a California university, pay attention to what you are looking at.

2. College Acceptances in California

That was a long introduction to the point of this episode, which is the runaway application numbers and crazy difficulty of getting into schools in the UC system, the top-tier system and the one that most out-of-staters are most interested in.  I came across an article recently in Inside Higher Ed, written by Scott Jaschik, with this sad headline:  “Wait-Listed, Rejected and Frustrated in California.”  Here is the opening to Mr. Jaschik’s article, which, though anecdotal, is quite revealing, even for those of us who are not Californians:

[A] counselor said that he is seeing students either wait-listed or rejected from UC Davis or UC Santa Barbara–students with “straight A’s and maybe one or two B’s” and SAT scores above 1400 or near-perfect ACT scores. He has seen even stronger students–among the top of his school’s graduating class–getting rejected from UC San Diego.

“Our San Diego decisions look like Berkeley and UCLA decisions from years past,” he said. “Students we told that ‘this was a likely school’ aren’t getting in.”

Parents–many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness–are particularly shocked. “We are constantly working with parents who assume a B-plus student can go to Davis or Santa Barbara, and they can’t,” said the counselor.

UCLA and Berkeley have for years been long shots for all applicants. They reject many students with perfect SAT scores and grade point averages. So while many applicants are crushed by rejections at those two campuses, their counselors aren’t surprised. The difference this year, counselors say, is that other UC campuses and some California State campuses have gone up significantly in competitiveness. . . .

A school counselor in Northern California said it is the “middle group” within the University of California where he is seeing change. He has a senior with straight A’s who was wait-listed at Santa Barbara. At Davis and San Diego, “students we assumed would be strong candidates are being wait-listed.”

He said that, next year, he will be discouraging students from using any UC as a safety.  (quoted from the article)

Well, there is a lot to unpack there.  First, there is the notion that kids in California are increasingly unable to use their own public higher education system as their fallback position, or safety schools.  We have often said, here at USACollegeChat, that the state public university campuses are great safety school choices for bright kids with good grades and good admission test scores.  And while we were always sure that no one could use UC Berkeley or UCLA as a safety, we would have thought that some of the UC campuses in that “middle group” would have been fine to use.  I guess we are going to need to rethink this strategy–at least for kids in California, which gives those kids just one more source of anxiety in the college search process.

Second, there is the very real concern of high school counselors, who have somehow led a lot of kids astray while following norms they had trusted.  They will all have to recalibrate before next season’s application process so that there will be fewer unpleasant surprises.

Third, there is the very real misconception of parents, “many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness.”  I just want to say to parents that I totally get this, because it happens to me all the time.  And, as we are fond of saying here at USACollegeChat, we do this for a living.  I am constantly amazed at admissions stories from colleges that I know were really nothing to write home about 40 years ago, colleges that were politely referred to as “party schools,” colleges that now no one can seem to get into.  I don’t want to name a bunch of those colleges here, but I can tell you that there are quite a few on my list.  This all just speaks to the growing competitiveness of college admissions.  Sometimes my college friends from Cornell and I sit around and wonder whether any of us could have gotten in to Cornell today.  So, parents and grandparents, this is not your college world any longer; it is a new college world, with higher expectations across the board.

And fourth, I would like to say to all my young friends here in New York, who have just told me recently that they wanted to go to UC Berkeley, think again–because your chances are not good, no matter how smart you are.  Berkeley just turned down hundreds–really thousands–like you.  Does that mean you shouldn’t apply?  No, because you might get lucky.  But it does mean you shouldn’t expect to get in, you should have plenty of other college choices that you like a lot, and you should be happily surprised if it all works out in your favor.

And how might California’s situation affect those of you who have kids recently wait listed at top colleges elsewhere?  Here is what Mr. Jaschik explains:

. . . [Y]ields could be hard to predict for out-of-state colleges that recruit top students in California. Many Californians have in the past turned down top out-of-state institutions for UC campuses that charge a fraction of the cost of private institutions. Such students may not have the option going ahead.  (quoted from the article)

In other words, California kids who might have turned down Cornell for Berkeley might need to pick up that acceptance to Cornell now, with Berkeley out of the running.  That means it is less likely that other kids on the wait list at top colleges will actually get in.  It might also mean that some of those colleges will find themselves overenrolled because most of the California kids they accepted might actually end up coming.

3. College Applications in California

But, let’s back up the clock a minute to look at applications to these California universities, not just acceptances.  This is a story we have mentioned before, but never with quite this much data to support it.  Here are the facts, according to Mr. Jaschik’s article:

. . . [The] numbers are available for total applications for the coming fall. And while UC campuses are edging up in total size, the application increases are much larger. Total (unduplicated) applications for undergraduate admission to the University of California were up 5.7 percent, but the largest increases were not at Berkeley, which was up only 4.6 percent. UC Riverside saw the largest percentage increase–12.2 percent.

Five UC campuses–Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara–received more than 100,000 applications each. San Diego’s total is up 9.7 percent. Davis is not far behind at 95,000 applications, up 8.6 percent. (By way of comparison, Harvard University received just under 40,000 applications last year.)

Application totals like those guarantee shrinking admit rates of the sort many applicants are experiencing this year.  (quoted from the article)

Wow.  That’s a lot of applications, and I doubt they are going to start dropping off any time soon.  What does it all mean?  Well, for families in California, it means that you need to get out of your geographic comfort zone (and perhaps your financial comfort zone as well).  This is the advice we give most often to everyone looking at colleges, and it might be one reason that counselors in California are finding that kids are getting into prestigious schools in the East–more prestigious than some of the public universities they did not get into in California–precisely because they broadened their geographic scope and found some colleges that were anxious to diversify their own freshman classes with exotic creatures from California.  Can it get any worse?  Stay tuned for what will happen next year at this time.

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Episode 158: Does the College Matter?

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This is the second episode in our new series, Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because, as we said last week, we always do some episodes about college decision making in April, for obvious reasons.

1. Isn’t This Counterintuitive?

Every year at this time, pundits and educators write articles and op-ed pieces about how it doesn’t matter if your kid didn’t get into an Ivy League school, how admissions at top schools is an insane process that turns down thousands of perfectly qualified students, and how, in the end, he or she will still turn out fine.  Of course, that is basically true, and everyone knows it.  For a great take on this issue, go back and listen to Episode 121 from last year, which quotes extensively from an article by writer Michael Winerip, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard,” published in The New York Times on April 29, 2007!  It could have been written yesterday and is probably more true today than it was when it was written 11 years ago.

But does the choice of which college to send your kid to really matter as little as some people say?  Because although your kid might not have a choice of one of the top 20 colleges in the U.S., that leaves a lot of other ones–thousands, to be exact.  Are they virtually interchangeable?  Is one just as good as another so why spend more?

The advice we always give–and the advice we gave again to one parent last week in Episode 157?is simply this:  Send your kid to the best college he or she got admitted to, even if it costs a little more or is farther away than you had wanted or is not what you had imagined for your kid.  But that advice is clearly not everyone’s view, so let’s look at the other side.

2. It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go to College?

“TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture,” according to its own website.  Well, one of those leading voices is evidently William Stixrud, co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, with Ned Johnson.  The title of his piece in TIME Ideas is “It’s Time To Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College.”  Well, that is a bold statement–bolder than most.  Let’s take a look at what he wrote early in that article:

. . . [W]hy don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. (quoted from the article)

Well, all of this is true.  Yes, there are many roads to success.  Yes, many different colleges can get you there, if you need college at all.  And yet, does that really mean most parents can or will take the position that it doesn’t matter where their kids go to college?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think they should.  Because while there are many roads to success and while many colleges or no college at all can get you there, most people also believe that a great college–or a great college match–for a kid can only be a plus as that kid heads into his or her future.  I don’t know many parents–if any at all?who would try to convince their own kids to turn down college and suggest that their kids try to make it on their own instead, even if Mr. Gates and Mr. Zuckerberg managed to do it.

So, let’s see what else Mr. Stixrud has to say:

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college–that where you go makes very little difference later in life.

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.”

Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth–giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student–increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.  (quoted from the article)

Well, I am all for telling kids the truth.  I do want kids to understand their options, to broaden those options, and to encourage kids to pursue those options, regardless of their levels of motivation or their GPAs.  I do want kids to have a realistic view of the world and of their place in it.

Nonetheless, I am struck by data on the other side of this argument.  Almost two years ago, way back in Episode 67, we interviewed our colleague (and my fellow Cornell alum) Harold Levy, the smart and savvy executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.  At that time, the Foundation had co-authored, with The Century Foundation, an insightful report entitled True Merit:  Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.  We had talked about the report even earlier, back in Episode 59, and I still remember some of the statistics that the report presented.  For example:

  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, but 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students do so.
  • High-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as high-achieving students from the poorest families (24 percent compared to 8 percent).
  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

So, it does seem to matter to wealthy families that their high-achieving kids go to selective colleges, and I wish that high-achieving kids from low-income families had the same support to help them get to those same selective colleges.  And I wish that those selective colleges would try harder to provide that support and outreach.  Because as most of us realize in this real world, it does matter where you go to college.  Just ask the 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders who went to the same 12 selective colleges.

Of course, we are not advocating that parents or high school staff  put an unreasonable or dangerous amount of pressure on kids.  No one wants to make kids overanxious, fearful, and downright sad in their last years of high school.

Maybe our message today is really more for parents than for kids, and it is the exact same message we gave in our last episode:  Send your kid to the best college he or she got into?whether that’s an Ivy League university, a public flagship university, a small liberal arts college, or a private university.  It’s a good short-term decision and, very likely, the best long-term decision.  If you don’t agree, give me a call and let’s chat.

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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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  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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