Episode 71: College Decision Time for Below-Average Students

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

Two weeks ago, we started a new series entitled “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions” in honor of the May 1 date that is approaching as many colleges expect to get enrollment commitments from students they accepted. So far, we have talked about college options and decisions that are likely awaiting average and above-average high school students. Today, we want to look at a college path for below-average high school students.

To repeat what I have said before, “below-average high school students” are not necessarily kids who aren’t smart. They could simply be kids who, for whatever reason at school or at home or in their personal lives, did not become the very best high school students they could have been. But, fortunately, there is likely still a path to and through college, if they want to make that their goal.

By “below-average students,” we are going to mean that they are below average in the group of students who are clearly headed for college. They are students with mostly C’s in their high school classes and SAT subtest scores between 400 and 500—though SAT subtest scores, in fact, average (i.e., a mean score) in the mid-400s to low 500s, depending on your race and ethnicity unfortunately. Nonetheless, these so-called average scores in the mid-400s and low 500s are extremely unlikely to get students into great colleges, unless there are unusual circumstances.

Given their grades and test scores, it is likely that these students do not have as wide a variety of college options for next fall as average and above-average students do. They might have as options, however, one or more not-selective private colleges, a public state college or university in their home state or in another state (though likely not the flagship university in either case), and probably one or more community colleges in their home state. These options might be available if they made wise choices when applying. If they didn’t make wise choices when applying, it might be that they can enroll only in a community college near home or in their own state.

1. Needed Remediation?

Before we zero in on which college to choose to attend, let’s take a look at a very difficult issue that often arises with below-average high school students heading into college—remediation. Most colleges, including community colleges, set some kind of standard, typically for math skills and English skills, that students must meet before they can go into regular college courses. Below-average high school students often fail to meet such standards, throwing them into a purgatory of remedial courses from which some never escape. (This is also true for some special education students with IEPs, but that’s a different story.) Meredith Kolodner wrote about college remedial classes from a variety of perspectives in her insightful March 8 article in The Hechinger Report, where she said that “the whole notion of ‘remedial’ classes is being hotly debated. Most colleges still use separate classes that underprepared students must pass before enrolling in college-level classes, while recent research indicates that integrating remedial learning with regular college courses brings better results.”

Ms. Kolodner refers to a study of “developmental sequences” in community colleges—meaning a string of perhaps two or three remedial courses that students are placed into at the appropriate level, depending on their skills, and that they must finish in order to switch over into actual college courses. The study, conducted in 2010 by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, concluded this in its CCRC Brief Number 45, “Student Progression Through Developmental Sequences in Community Colleges”:

Fewer than one half of students in our sample [of community college students] completed their developmental sequences, and only 20 percent of students referred to math remediation and 37 percent of those referred to reading remediation completed a gatekeeper course [that is, a first actual college-level course] in the relevant subject area within three years.

In addition to providing evidence on overall developmental completion rates, this study has presented information about the nature of developmental course sequences and the places where students tend to exit their sequences. Analysis of developmental sequences makes clear that many students who exit their sequence do so even though they have never failed or withdrawn from a developmental course. This pattern extends into the first college-level course: Among developmental completers in the sample, those who enrolled in a gatekeeper course had a good chance of passing it, but about 30 percent did not enroll in such a course within the three-year period of the study. (quoted from the report)

So, parents, why am I telling you all this? Because your below-average high school student headed off to college—even if it is a community college—is likely to end up in a remedial course in English and/or in math and, when your kid does, you need to understand how difficult it might be for your kid to get out. Imagine being faced with a sequence of three math courses the minute you step through the college door when math was never your thing to begin with. That might seem like an insurmountable hurdle to a lot of kids, especially kids who have already struggled in high school. It is no wonder that a third of them never get to the gatekeeper real college course. It just takes too long; they get worn out, and they give up.

If you have a kid in this situation, look for a college that has a different approach to remedial courses—perhaps one that offers an accelerated path to completing remedial work or one that offers extra tutoring for an otherwise remedial student, but in a regular college course. Or get tutoring for your kid in the summer and try to knock out the remedial work before college classes ever start in the fall. Some colleges offer these options and more, and they are likely well worth it.

2. Who Teaches Remedial Courses?

Since I am talking to parents now rather than to college presidents (which I have done), I will spare you a long discussion of the staffing of remedial college courses and how colleges should probably take another look at how they do that. But let me give you the quick version.

Many, many professors or instructors or lecturers or whatever a college calls them who teach remedial courses are part-time faculty members. By part time, I really mean “adjunct” faculty members, who likely teach at more than one college to make ends meet and are, therefore, understandably less available to the students who need them most. Adjunct faculty members simply do not spend the time on the campus that regular full-time faculty members do and cannot engage with students very deeply or frequently as a result. I do not mean to speak disparagingly of adjunct faculty members. Some of my best friends are adjunct faculty members. They have a tough job with difficult working conditions, not much support, and relatively low pay in the world of college professors.

You might argue that full professors, who might prefer to do research and write books and have little interest in underprepared students, aren’t great remedial course teachers, either. And you might be right. Either way, if your child will have to take remedial courses at a college he or she has been accepted to, the staffing of those remedial courses is a real issue. As a parent, you should understand that and ask questions about that staffing if you need to in order to help your child make the best college choice.

You might also want to ask for the statistics from the college of how many students actually complete the remedial sequence they are assigned to and move on to real college-level work successfully. As we have said repeatedly, it is one thing to get into college and another thing to get out. Getting out of the remedial sequence successfully is the first step toward graduation.

3. Selectivity of the College

Now we are ready to discuss the selectivity of the colleges that have accepted your child. We are going to assume that, if your child has acceptances from two or more colleges, that those colleges are not necessarily equivalent in terms of their selectivity. In other words, your child might have been accepted at both public and private colleges and at both two-year and four-year colleges. These are very 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 and the previous week to parents with average and above-average high school students: Your child should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. With any luck, that college will not require your child to take remedial courses. But if it does, you know what to look for and what to ask.

The most important reason for this advice is that graduation rates are higher at academically better colleges. In other words, as we have said before, your child is more likely to finish a degree if he or she attends a more selective college, and your child is more likely to finish that degree on time. That might be especially important for below-average students, who might need a bit more support to keep moving through their courses at the correct pace.

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 decision with your child.

By the way, the most selective college your child was accepted to could be one of your state’s public four-year university or state college campuses. As we have said many times, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a respected public college.

It is likely that a community college is not your child’s most selective option, unless it is the only option. In other words, it is probable that if a four-year state public college or university accepted your child, that institution is more selective and likely a better choice than a two-year community college. As we have said throughout these episodes, 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 also said several times, the transfer rate of students from community colleges to four-year colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees is shockingly 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).

Below-average high school students headed for college do not have a great chance of making that transfer and getting that four-year degree. So few students manage to do it that I think it is a big gamble if you have another choice.

4. Your Choice for Your Child

Here’s a question we asked and answered in each of the last two weeks: 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 Episode 69 or 70, because this problem is the same regardless of whether your child was an above-average, average, or below-average high school student. And my answer is the same: As a parent, I wish you could win, but I don’t think you can win without convincing your child first. Your child is the one who is going to have to do the work and be content while doing it.

5. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. It is likely that you will be looking at a public option or two and perhaps a private option or two. If your child’s high school grades and test scores weren’t as high as they might have been, I am guessing that your private option(s) are not high-ranked schools. The question might boil down to this: Do you spend a lot of money on a private option that is not a great school, or do you choose a public option?

If money is not a major concern for you or if some other factor is of great concern—like you want a faith-based college—and it can’t be gotten in a public college, then go ahead and make the private college choice. However, a decent public option might be your most cost-effective choice. If your child can post some good grades over a year or two at a public college, then transferring to a better private college or a better public university is an option down the road. Either way, you save money at a public option for a year or two, while waiting to help your child move into a more selective private option next.

But, as I always say: Do what it takes to send your child to the best college that will take him or her, because the best possible college education is something worth investing in—even if that means loans for you and your child. If that’s a four-year public state college rather than a two-year public community college, then find a way to pay the difference.

We are going to do an episode about finances next week, but it’s not a magic bullet. If only it were.

6. Next Steps

So, here is what I have been saying. 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

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 70: College Decision Time for Above-Average Students

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

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)

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 69: College Decision Time for Average Students

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

We are going to start a new series today that I like to call “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.” Since it is April, we imagine that some families among our listeners are in the throes of having to decide where their kids are actually going to go to college next fall. With perhaps about three weeks to go till many colleges want students to choose and to commit to them, we are going to do a set of three episodes on making the college decision. The three episodes will focus on how good a student your kid was in high school and what his or her options probably are now.

Episode 69: College Decision Time for Average Students on USACollegeChat podcast

Notice that I didn’t say how bright or how smart your kid is, because I firmly 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—both in undergraduate school and perhaps in graduate school. As Shakespeare might have said, “All’s well that ends well.”

Today, we will talk about college decision-making for average high school students. Of course, “average” these days doesn’t mean what it meant years ago, I think. We have talked about what looks like high school grade inflation, to us, though it might simply be a result of the increasingly prevalent practice of weighting grades in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and perhaps in dual-credit college courses. Two weeks ago, our guest Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, waxed eloquent about that practice and what he thought of it. We couldn’t agree more. (Check out his thoughts in Episode 67.)

So, by “average,” we are going to mean roughly students with B’s in their high school classes and some C’s and perhaps a few A’s. Their SAT scores might land in the 500 to 600 range for each subtest. Such a student, we believe, could have some options at this point in the admissions process, if he or she made wise choices when applying to colleges. Such a student could be considered an “average” student among high school students headed to college, though would likely be “above average” when compared to all high school students.

Next week, we will focus on above-average college-going students, and the following week on below-average college-going students. We will assume for these discussions that students have at least two colleges to choose from, but students could have as many as eight or 10 colleges to choose from. So, here are some of our thoughts.

1. Rejection by the First-Choice College

Let’s start by getting one difficult problem out of the way: What if your child has just been rejected by his or her first choice? I could offer some advice as someone who has seen that happen many times during the past 45 years. But I would rather read you some remarkably insightful comments from a young woman named Julia Schemmer, who was rejected by her “dream” school—UCLA. She is now a student in the Class of 2019 at the University of California, Riverside. These are the reflections that she offers your child (originally published in High School Insider and re-published by the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2016, as “Rejected from your dream school? Remember these three things.” Let’s listen to Julia:

  1. It isn’t your fault. When a college rejection letter comes in the mail, it is easy to immediately invalidate everything you have ever done and view your experiences as a high school student as incomplete or inadequate. It’s not true. Many universities have rigorous application requirements with expectations that are often left unknown to anyone but the admissions board. You could have the perfect SAT, the most extracurricular activities, or the best GPA, but it could be true that the college wasn’t looking for things like that. At the end of the day, you worked hard to get where you are, and that’s something your application letter won’t tell you.
  2. It’s not the end of the world. There are so many colleges and universities that would absolutely love to have you walk through their door. Whether it’s expanding your knowledge of other universities that may be better suited to your goals or working hard to transfer to your dream school, there are still opportunities to attend a great learning institution. When I decided to commit to attending a school different from my dream school, of course I was disappointed. However, I currently love the university that I attend and the major I am pursuing. If anything, UCLA will always be an option for my graduate school education.
  3. It’s not a reason to be mad at the people who did get accepted. Perhaps there will be someone at your high school that gets into your dream university. This does not justify being unkind or rude to them because they got into the school they did, nor does it excuse them being pretentious or bragging. Once graduation is over, everyone paves his or her own path. How they get there should not be criticized. We must love and support one another in a society that encourages anything but.

Although your college experience might not be what you predicted, that doesn’t mean you are anything less than the student you worked to be. Do not be fearful of rejection, but rather be empowered by it, for you are building your own empire brick by brick. (quoted from the article)

Brava, Julia! I bet UCLA is having second thoughts right now.

2. Selectivity of the College

We are going to assume that, if your child is an average high school student headed for college, he or she might have 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 selective private colleges (though perhaps not a most-selective college), at a couple of not-so-selective private colleges, at your public flagship university or another public university in your state, and at a public flagship university or another public university in another state. You might also have used a local community college as a safety school. In other words, an average high school student headed for college might have to make a choice among a bunch of very different options. But even if your child has just two options, the decision-making process is still quite serious.

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: Your child should go to the most selective school that accepted him or her. Are there any arguments on the other side of that decision? Of course, there are. They are just not persuasive.

Apart from the undeniable prestige of attending a more-selective college, we have said previously—and proved with a lot of data from various colleges—that graduation rates are higher at more-selective colleges. In other words, your child is more likely to finish a degree if he or she attends a more-selective college, and your child is more likely to finish that degree in a reasonable amount of time—ideally four years. It’s one thing to get into a college, and it’s another thing to get out. As we have said in previous episodes, getting out is just as important as getting in.

Practically speaking, what does that advice mean? It means that you should talk with your child about going to the toughest, most academically prestigious college possible. Not just because of the prestige factor, but because it will affect his or her future—both four years from now at graduation and likely 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.

What if that selective college is far away from home and you and your child wanted a close-to-home option? What if that selective college is private and you and your child wanted a public option? What if that selective college is located in an urban setting and you and your child wanted a rural or suburban option? What if that selective college is not faith based and you and your child wanted a faith-based option?

You are going to have to make your own choice, weighing all of these factors. You might want to go back to your deal breakers—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 suggesting here that the selectivity of the college be moved to the top of your list of factors to consider when making this important decision.

By the way, the most selective college your child was accepted to might well be a public university—especially if it is 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 college. For a list of great public colleges, go back and listen or re-listen to the nationwide virtual tour we took you all on in Episodes 27–53.

And let me add one note about community colleges. If your child is at least an average student in high school, I don’t think that a community college is likely to be his or her best choice. I understand that there might be financial reasons to attend a community college. I 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, the difficulty that many students seem to have in transferring from a community college to a four-year college really worries me. You might recall this quotation from an article in The Hechinger Report (“Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” February 8, 2016, online) that we discussed in Episode 64:

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).

As we said then, these statistics are astounding. Let’s just say it again: 80 percent of two-year college students say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, only about 25 percent actually transfer to a four-year college so that they can do that, and only 17 percent finally get the degree that they transferred for.

Now, do average high school students headed for college perhaps 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? Probably so. But it still looks like a risk to me.

3. Your Child’s Dream School

What if your child has just been accepted by his or her first choice, but it just isn’t as good as another college that also accepted your child? Or, what if your child has just been accepted by a college that he or she fell in love with for whatever reason—a great campus, a great football team, or great dorms, for example—but it just isn’t as good as another college that also accepted your child? Well, you have a problem on your hands. It could be really hard to re-direct your child’s interest to the more-selective college.

Now, I know that many advisors would start talking to you about “fit” right now. We have even talked about “fit”—that is, how well your child will “fit” into the college community, based on brains or athletic ability or race or religion or socioeconomic status or any number of other things. I, too, want your child to fit into the college community that he or she chooses; I am just hoping that will be an academically strong and well-resourced college community, with great professors and with students who progress through it and graduate on time.

I don’t have any magic advice here. But I do believe that a good talk with your child—about what he or she hopes to get out of college and to do after college and which college can most likely help him or her get all of that—might be worth it. If the academically strongest college also has a great campus and a great football team and great dorms—and many do—then that is perfect, from my point of view.

4. Your Choice for Your Child

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? That is one of the worst problems I can imagine.

As a parent and as an adult, I would like to say that you should win because you have been around longer and seen more and perhaps even know more and are likely paying the bill. But I don’t think you can win in this situation without convincing your child that you are right.

We all have many anecdotes that prove this point:

  • There is the young woman who wanted to be a musician, but went to a science-oriented college at her father’s insistence. She lasted a year, did miserably, switched colleges, and is now a music professor at a university and world-class musician.
  • There is the young man who went to a small liberal arts college at his mother’s insistence. He lasted two years, did miserably, and switched to his father’s alma mater—where he had wanted to go in the first place. He excelled and went on to grad school.

College is hard, and it is almost impossible when you are not reasonably happy there. So, parents, I believe that you will eventually have to give in to what the child wants because, in fact, your child is the one who is going to have to do the work.

5. What About the Cost?

So, now let’s talk about money. What if your child got a great scholarship—even a full ride—at a college that is not nearly as good as a more selective college that he or she was accepted by? Man, that is a hard choice. And, I have to tell you that it makes me very sad to hear kids and parents say, “Well, we are just waiting to see where she gets the best financial aid package.” Why? Because that might not be the best choice for her or the best choice period.

I am not going to say just go out and find a bunch of obscure scholarships that go begging every year (though I know that happens). I am going to say that the best possible college education is something worth investing in—whether that is through loans your child takes and/or though loans that you as parents take. We will do an episode about finances in a few weeks, but there won’t be any real magic in that, either. Paying for college is hard—especially paying for private selective colleges. That’s just one more reason we love those great public flagship universities.

6. Next Steps

Here is a great offer that you won’t get often. 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 best for your child. I do this all the time, and I would love to do it for you. Nothing is more important than making the right decision now. The next four years are critical.

 

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 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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