• 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.


How Readers Chose Colleges

Lessons from an informal survey.

October 14, 2019

Last week I posted a question to my wise and worldly readers: How did you choose which college to attend?

I’ll stipulate up front that the answers constitute a self-selected convenience sample and are not scientific. That said, some of the anecdotes (and patterns of anecdotes) were pretty wild.

When we ask how students choose colleges, we tend to get a few flat, pat answers. But if you ask people how they, themselves, chose, the stories suddenly get more interesting.

The most common responses, by far, came down to “I didn’t really think about it,” “it was close to home” and “it was the only one I could afford.” Contrary to the myths peddled to high school students, most of the folks who answered that way seemed happy with how things turned out. A few who found an early mismatch quickly found better matches and got on with it.

I had to smile at the one who mentioned “male/female ratio” as a deciding factor; at 17, there’s some truth to that. A few mentioned following a girlfriend or boyfriend, with varying results. Physical beauty of the campus itself came up in several cases. Late application deadlines made a difference for several people, too.

Far more mentioned wanting to stay close to home than getting away from home. That was very much the opposite of my own experience, as well as those of my high school friend group. In some cases, the motive was financial -- living at home rent-free -- but several mentioned comfort. They wanted to keep their support network. The idea of “going away to college” is still the exception. At a minimum, recognizing the importance of home in people’s college choices casts the whole “undermatching” thesis in a less forgiving light. The fact that some college 500 miles away might be more highly ranked on some scale than the one 10 minutes from home doesn’t mean much if leaving home isn’t an option.

A few Black respondents mentioned looking closely at the climate for Black students at a given school. One mentioned looking specifically at “proximity to Dominicans.” Others got at a similar issue from the other direction, noting that the first college they picked just wasn’t a fit. Lack of critical mass of a given group at a particular college can become self-perpetuating, if nobody wants to be the "only" or one of a very few. But it’s understandable. I remember feeling out of place by economic class at Williams, where the majority ranged from wealthy to stupendously wealthy. It’s a bit like wearing shoes that don’t quite fit, every single day. You can do it, but you’re always aware of it, always a little uncomfortable and always at least slightly off balance.

Seemingly random factors played a large role for several respondents: one, for instance, mentioned a lifelong love of the Bowling Green University fight song. Stray comments by older siblings or trusted adults seemed to matter a lot, too. I’ll admit recognizing that in my own choice of graduate school. A trusted professor mentioned Rutgers in an office-hours conversation one day, which prompted me to look into it. Had that not happened, I wouldn’t have met The Wife, and The Boy and The Girl wouldn’t have existed. That’s a lot of outcome from one conversation. Others mentioned the one college rep who actually made eye contact at a college fair, a spare application a friend had lying around, a tour guide who made a positive (or negative) impression and a professor who said something either thoughtful or thoughtless that tipped the balance.

In a few cases, athletics made the difference. In others, it was the presence of a particular major, even if the student later wound up changing majors (as most did).

Guidance counselors generally didn’t fare well in the discussion. It sounds like many of them assumed that the student knew things (the “unwritten rules”) that the student didn’t know. A few people mentioned the old computer systems in which you’d enter a bunch of criteria and it would spit out a list of schools that met the criteria. One respondent mentioned that her criteria were so specific that it only spat back one name; she applied, attended and loved it. It happens.

Consistent with the #RealCollege movement, a few single parents mentioned specifically the need to find schools that offered financial support for single parents. For single moms, Mount Holyoke’s Frances Perkins program and Smith’s Ada Comstock program got particular praise. Single dads appear to be pretty much on their own. Some colleges offer married student housing, but I didn’t see any mention of unique financial aid for single parents at most places.

I was slightly heartbroken when a few international readers mentioned that in many countries, finances just don’t play such a large part in college selection, or in trying to finish a degree. They seemed surprised at the frequency with which people mentioned cost and/or scholarships as dispositive. If we had a less stratified system, that wouldn’t be nearly as true. For proof, we can just look at Canada.

Still, I was glad to see that the overwhelming majority of respondents seemed happy with their eventual choices, even if the choices were made almost by accident. Yes, there’s some survivor bias in the sample, but still. If the responses carry any larger validity, it may be that the pain points aren’t what we usually think they are. Instead of trying to create the "fairest," most meritocratic stratified system we possibly can, we should try to make more of the available options good. That’s no small task, but it’s a worthy one. This generation of students deserves no less than any of its predecessors.


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