• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Helping a high school student find the right place for them.

April 15, 2021

A new correspondent wrote with a question close to my heart:

My question is about our son’s college plans. He is a high school junior, with loads of deep talent in math, languages, writing, etc. We are guessing that "we" will apply to maybe a dozen selective/exclusive colleges this fall, and hope we somehow get enough money to attend one that seems a good fit. It’s the fit that I’m wondering about. Specifically, do you have any tips about how to judge a college’s fit to a student? Maybe there are websites that help a high school student probe this question? So far, the usual questions about urban/rural, large/small, etc. are not cutting through the fog. TB in our family seems adaptable and not terribly concerned yet about this question of fit; maybe it’s a parent thing that is a little out of control. We just hope to avoid the scenario of him being alienated because his campus is too this or too that for him, something maybe we all could have foreseen with a little more smart inquiry.

First, an acknowledgment: this is a good problem to have. Not everybody has a lot of options.

I can give a decent pre-COVID answer, but it doesn’t really work during the pandemic. Folks who’ve cracked the code during the pandemic are invited to respond.

With my TB, he had some idea of what he wanted to do, a general sense of the area of the country in which he wanted to be and a sense of the style of institution he wanted to attend. That helped a lot. So we looked for largeish universities in the northeastern quadrant of the country (but at least a couple of hours from Mom and Dad) with good reputations for premed. That reduced the universe of possibilities to a manageable size.

Then we took some road trips to check them out.

Just about every presentation is pretty much the same. They’re worth seeing, just to get some basic information, but the good stuff is in the incidentals. Look at the graffiti, the paper signs on kiosks and the ways that students walk around. In the case of one university that shall remain nameless, as we walked along a street where a lot of the students live, we noticed the cars parked along the curb: Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche.

We are not Porsche people.

At another, the tension in the air was palpable. Just about everyone seemed incredibly stressed out. TB, as he likes to say, has a lot of chill; it wasn’t the right fit.

At some other campuses, he was comfortable immediately. It’s a vibe.

COVID has made that kind of sorting much harder. TG is a high school junior, so we have some time yet, but we’ve been disappointed not to be able to do road trips this year. (I’m not convinced that summer visits give a representative sample.) The virtual presentations are even more same-y than the in-person ones.

Of course, the school is only half of the equation. Honest self-awareness on the student’s part goes a long way. For a very religious student, a secular campus might be fine if there’s a strong compatible faith community there. A student of color who grew up in a very white area might be tired of that and looking for a college with a larger community of people of their race. Some students can’t process the thought of being far from home, while others consider a substantial buffer zone from the parents to be a nonnegotiable minimum. (Both of my kids are in that group. I don’t take it personally; I was the same way.) A student who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community might want to look for a setting in which there’s a large and active LGBTQ community, both for acceptance and, frankly, dating.

To the extent I can offer any advice at all, it would be to pay honest attention to the student. Let them know that it’s OK not to like a place they’re “supposed” to like. And let them know that the whole “dream school” rhetoric is kind of silly. Yes, some schools will be better fits than others, but it’s possible to have a terrific experience at any number of places; what matters more than where they go is what they do once they get there.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?


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