Over 60% of students who begin a four year post-secondary degree program will not graduate in four years. Even with the addition of two more years to complete a four year degree, over 40% of students still don’t graduate. Like Frank Costanza, many parents find themselves looking to the heavens and exclaiming “Serenity Now” when confronted with the application process in light of our current, sobering national success rates.
While I don’t dispute the plethora of non-degree outcomes that stem from a college experience; the essential objective of going to college is to complete a degree---and ideally, complete that degree in 100% of institution defined time. The “Right College” is the school where your child will succeed by doing exactly that. After spending nearly 20 years working at the college and pre-college levels, I am convinced that one primary cause of these sobering statistics is simply poor selection.
Based on research and experience with my own two daughters, the five steps below are a great way to minimize risk and beat the odds…
Step 1: Know Your Child
The most common mistake that I see as I speak to parents and students across the country is as follows: The majority of parents focus on the best schools in terms of rankings, while largely disregarding the right schools in terms of their child. If your child needed small class sizes and direct support from their teachers to succeed in high school; the likelihood that they will suddenly succeed in a collegiate culture dominated by 400 seat lecture halls is probably pretty low. In addition to the insights that only parents have through 16 years of child rearing, you want to have open conversations with your child around strengths, weaknesses, behaviors and tendencies, interests, and the current network of supports that you and your child may take for granted. While this short article is focused on college, you should explore all avenues beyond high school; don’t assume that a four year degree is the right pathway for them.
Step 2: Build Your Initial College Target List (Summer before Junior Year)
This is not a random list stored in your memory or posted on the fridge. This a detailed plan that formalizes the launch of your college search process; establishes initial search boundaries; and calendarizes an 18 month action plan. The amount of stress involved in the college application and selection process is inversely related to the amount of time spent on this step. My own Excel sheet includes three worksheets: Target Schools; Test Scores; and Scholarships. The “Target Schools” worksheet is not a simple list. It collects information on each school like “Majors of Interest”; “Application Dates (Early & Regular)”; “Application Types (Early Decision, Early Action, Priority, Regular, etc.)”; “Campus Visit Events (Tours, Briefings, Lab Open Houses, etc.); “Recommendation Requirements”; “Application Portal” (Common APP, Coalition App, or Independent); “Tuition”; and “Actions” (Transcript, Test Scores, and Application Deadlines) among other categories. At this stage, you want to populate this type of information for approximately 20 schools of interest. The “Test Scores” worksheet identifies standardized testing dates for SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests among others. I recommend that each student take the SAT and ACT at least once during their junior year in addition to the PSAT. The “Scholarships” worksheet should capture key scholarships and opportunities like Honors Programs, Work Study, and Research at each institution.
Step 3: Pre-Application College Visits (Junior Year)
These visits should be both “directional” and “diverse” and need to occur when class is in session at college. Directionally, it should focus on a selection of the schools in your Initial Target List that provide the major options that might generally be of interest to your child. You also want to make sure that this list at least includes small and large schools; private and public schools; and urban and rural schools. Generally, three to four visits are enough to gain the insights you need. You want your child to be able to compare and contrast the varying cultures, social customs, and academic environments of these institutions. While it is important to take the formal tours; make sure you take time to informally observe a class; walk around the local community; eat in the dining hall; or attend a sporting event. The goal is to help your child identify the type of environment in which they will succeed. Can they see themselves living here and succeeding? [See my blog on how to structure the College Visit here.]
Step 4: Finalize College Target List (Summer before Senior Year)
Even if your child is still unsure of a college major, they should be able to identify the type of collegiate culture and environment in which they will have the greatest likelihood of success. Cut your target list in half and ideally down to no more than 5-7 institutions that align with this success profile. In addition to using the institutions provided Net Price Calculators, you should have some initial standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Test, Dual Enrollment Grades, AP Scores, etc) by this point that can help you further align your child to the best schools for them. This list must include schools that align with your child’s cultural/environmental needs; academic abilities; and your household’s budget. Additionally, you want the final list to include both reach and safety schools.
Step 5: Post-Acceptance College Visits (Senior Year)
The Acceptance and Rejection letters have arrived. Now is not the time to decide; now is the time to evaluate your child’s top 2-3 possible decisions. One of the advantages of Early Action, Early Decision, and/or Priority Applications is the “Accepted Student” events that many schools now offer in the Spring Semester of your child’s senior year. These events often feature a more “behind the scenes” view of the institution and often provide access to faculty, staff, and students (some institutions even provide on campus “sleep overs” with sponsoring college students in your child’s area of interest). Many parents are both physically and financially exhausted by this point of the selection process, but a final visit to at least the top two finalists is critical to ensuring that your child makes an informed final decision.
 Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2016, Fall Enrollment component; and Fall 2014, Institutional Characteristics component. See Digest of Education Statistics 2016