If you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you may have recognized a few things in the title – How do I choose the best college? That certainly sounds like a narrow decision question! And the idea of best – that doesn’t seem to fit the blog’s tag line of “maximize satisfaction.” Satisfied and best are not synonyms. If you noticed either of those, that’s terrific! You are definitely on the path to making smarter decisions!
I chose that decision question for a reason, but let me clarify a few things first.
#1) The question is narrow because in this week’s analysis, it is necessary to earn a college degree to meet the established goals (in this case my daughter’s goals). I understand that there are many alternatives to college and even ways to get a very strong post-secondary education without college coursework, but that is a different decision analysis. I do plan on highlighting that analysis in the next few months. My goal is to eventually sequence the blog posts to help people with successive decisions. Decisions tend to “pile on” one another and this can lead to inaction and confusion.
But for this week – the career goal requires a degree, so we are choosing a college.
#2) Why the term best and not something like “choosing a college you’ll be happy or satisfied with?” I chose best because from my experience as a parent & professor, this has become a real problem for people (especially teenagers) as they try to decide which college to attend. The focus for many now seems to be choosing the perfect college, without regard to important goals that should be considered. This may not be a new problem, but when I chose a college in the 1980’s – things just seemed different. I also don’t want to confuse best with prestigious. Best means meeting the most needs and wants in this post, not to be confused with a college that has a highly regarded reputation.
#3) I am hoping to provide value to all readers in the upcoming decision analysis, not just those whose most important goal is to minimize cost. Reducing costs are certainly a major issue for most students, but there are cases where money is not the main issue. Some readers (or their children) may get scholarships to colleges for academics, activities, or sports and some may even get “full rides”. Others just have the financial means to pay for college. These students may still struggle with making the college decision too, just for different reasons.
One great thing is that the decision-making process I learned and write about can work for everyone because you determine the goals and rank them based on your situation!
Finding a good college in the 1980’s
My experience in choosing a college goes back about 30 years. From what I can remember, some of my friends chose colleges close to home (and a few chose as far away as they could get), a few picked a school a parent had attended, while others wanted nothing to do with following in their parent’s footsteps. And then there were those who went to the (gasp) community college a few miles down the road. My parents didn’t go to college, so the college search was new for all of us.
I was an honor student and strong swimmer in high school. I knew that I would be looking for a college where I could continue swimming and major in Biology to become a science teacher. These interests framed my college search process and would have been a part of my “goal” list if I actually used a written decision-making process. The cost of the colleges was a factor too, but it never affected the choice of schools I planned to visit.
I looked at some of the big college catalogs in the guidance office and at the mailings I got at home. Take note – I had to seek out most of the information I got about colleges. I also had to wait for letters (including my acceptance) to come from colleges in the (snail) mail.
Most colleges offered a biology major and many offered teacher certification courses. Some even had swim teams where I could compete and add value to the team. So I picked two schools and went on visits. Both colleges had welcoming faculty and students and the campuses were beautiful. But one was definitely my favorite in terms of how it felt. As an 18-year-old, that “gut feel” really mattered to me, even though when I look back I know that I didn’t learn much about the college in the three-hour visit!
But I ended up going to my second choice college after the final costs became clear. As much as I thought I wanted the first school, there was no way I could justify my parents and I spending a significant amount more because of how the first school “felt” when both colleges met my needs.
I could be satisfied with the second college and I never really thought twice about looking at the first school again. And maybe that was because there was no instant access to information. I couldn’t just click on their website and see everything I would regret not having…
Without knowing it, I had used a process and re-ranked my goals to make my final decision. And it was a smart decision for me – I was satisfied, without regrets. I finished my B.S. degree in three years and stayed another year to swim and get my M.S. degree. (New York State requires both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree for permanent teaching certification.)
Maybe I was satisfied with my college choice because of the lack of information I had. Or could it be that I just had more blindspots? Maybe I didn’t really understand the differences in what the colleges had to offer because of the lack of information. Or maybe I just lucked out and picked a school that was a good fit.
So what do I mean about this shift in terms of choosing the best college – the one that is a perfect fit?
Finding the best college in 2016
As a college professor and parent of two teenagers, I have learned that the Internet has profoundly changed the college search process for most students. I know this isn’t a dramatic finding, but many of my college students have talked in class about how stressful it was to make their final college choice.
Students are definitely not having trouble getting information about colleges now and I wonder if this is part of the stress they feel. My kids are bombarded with information. Emails, snail mail, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Tweets, Snapchats, college recruiter visits at school – you name it. They are connected with colleges (and ones they have never heard) of on a daily basis.
And it’s not just the amount of college information and the speed of getting it, it is the type of information that might be an issue too. There is an all-out media blitz with each college “one-upping” the next in one category or another. There are shiny mailings with free gifts, flashy videos showing the latest classroom facilities, Facebook pages for every activity you could imagine, Twitter accounts for the campus squirrels (really), and even aerial drone views (so you can see those doors we used to try to find on late night adventures).
You can learn so much about every college that it can be overwhelming to start comparing them.
My kids are trying to manage too much information about colleges, while I didn’t seem to have much information at all. Could the information overload (along with soaring college costs) be a source of some of that stress in choosing a college? And is it leading them to think that one school is the best and all they need to do is keep opening emails until they find the perfect one. And parents, we probably don’t see most of the information they get as it arrives to them now through emails and social media. Just something to keep in mind!
Don’t get me wrong, too much information is not a bad thing. Not knowing how to manage the quantity and quality of the information is the real problem.
So what can we do to move forward in the college decision process and begin to start limiting the endless college options?
I would suggest using some type of written decision-making process and I bet you are not surprised by that! This can save a tremendous amount of time and energy. If you read my post Decision Fatigue at the Coffee Bar, you know that just following a process may really reduce the micro-decisions and associated stress for everyone involved.
Maybe you have another decision-making process that worked out well for you? If so, please share that with us in the comments. The more successful ways of approaching this major life decision, the better! We can all learn from one another.
There is a good chance you also know someone who is in deep, life changing debt because of a poor college decision. I’ll never forget the 22 year-old sitting next to me in a college meeting one day who said, “I decided I didn’t want to teach a few weeks after graduation. Now I want to go in to higher education. The problem is I owe over $110,000 to this college for my teaching degree, so I will need to be some kind of Teaching Assistant to help pay for my Master’s degree.”
I could hardly breathe. I have mortgages on rental properties for less than that and I know what the payments are on those incoming-producing assets. This young lady “mortgaged” her first degree and was looking to take out more loans for her M.S. degree (at the same college). Her goal was a job with a salary so low that she wouldn’t be able to afford the payments on her first degree! I was totally floored when others were encouraging her about the “great” decision she was making to continue her education.
If what I write can help one person avoid what that young lady is facing, I will feel that every minute of my work has been worth it!
Later this week, I’ll share the “graduate school” tour we took in May and give details of my daughter’s decision-making process. She will be a senior in college this year and starting the process early will make it much easier for her when she starts classes this fall. We may need to make a campus visit or two, but most of the hard work will be done. She will be able to focus on her senior year and let the process play out, rather than hoping she will be able to make a good decision as she gets ready to graduate.
What was your college decision-making process and how did it work out? Were you looking for the best or for one that would satisfy your needs? I’m also curious about your thoughts on the marketing practices of colleges and how it affects students. Thanks for any insights you can share!
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