So what exactly is a best fit college? Does such a thing exist?
Two million high school seniors every year ask this question and attempt to pick that perfect college. With over 3,000 colleges in the United States the task is not an easy one. In fact, although seventy percent of high school students go to college there is a harsh trend that has emerged. The most recent national average college dropout rate is over fifty percent.
Fifty percent. That’s one out of two students who leave home and have to either return home or set out on their own.
This means students are either transferring to a different college, taking time off or are stopping their higher education journey entirely. These drop outs face the obstacle of having student debt and no degree to show for it. They also face the tough task of having to make debt payments as those loan obligations kick in.
The importance of picking the right path after high school has never seemed more important. Parents and students need to wrestle with reality and come to grips with what is the most logical path beyond high school. If that path is college then students and families must face an important college reality. Students have to do better at picking the right school, going to school with a plan, having the right work ethic and determination to finish.
Some say that aside from picking your life spouse, picking your college is near the top of the list of life’s most important decisions. So how should one go about finding a best fit college? In the nineties and early 2000’s the “go to any college, get a degree, and it all will work out” approach is no longer valid. In fact it is dangerous.
How To Start Thinking About Best Fit College
Google returns 18 million results when searching for “Best Fit College”.
Amazon yields over three thousand results for “Best Fit College” books. There have been hundreds of books written about how to pick a college over the past decade.
Teachers and high school guidance counselors are overwhelmed with a high workload and are not able to give every student the time required to do proper analysis of careers, majors, and colleges that make the most sense.
Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are all happy to weigh in on the colleges that you should be considering. They offer guidance based often on their own experience twenty or more years ago. They may as well have attended Hogwarts as the world and college landscape has changed dramatically.
And let’s not leave out all the friends that are all playing the “what schools are you applying to” and “where have you been accepted to” game.
“Did you know Jenny Smartypants was accepted to Brown early acceptance but she is waiting to see what other offers she receives before deciding?” – the painful and drama-inducing high school rumor mill
For the love of Pete, how do we begin?
Let’s be clear before we get started figuring out best fit.
Best fit is more of a category of schools. There are probably hundreds of colleges that would be an acceptable fit for every ready, willing, and able college student. This throws college rankings out the window.
There is no perfect fit, not even best fit. There is good fit, and that should be the goal.
Finding the best school that is a good fit for you.
This should put a lot of your minds at ease.
Begin With The End In Mind
First let’s step back for a second. We will be diving into four ways to identify best fit colleges but let’s ask the bigger picture question that matters the most. What is the end game? Where does this path after high school and then college lead to? What is next?
Answered in one word that parents want the most for their children: Independent
The belief that new college graduates will be able to navigate in the world as independent working adults.
They are self sufficient. Let’s throw in good character too. We want good people representing our next generation.
To get there we have to come up with a plan because whatever is next we need to be in a position to achieve it.
Plans change and may evolve but we have to spend the right amount of time and energy coming up with the best plan.
It is similar to a game of Monopoly.
We start with a strategy when we get Boardwalk the first time around the board. We are envisioning a life of high rolling with the highest rents in town. But we are forced to shift our strategy when someone else gets Park Place and the dynamics of the situation unfold. They just aren’t willing to make a deal. We land on Illinois Avenue to round out the Monopoly on Red and come to the realization that Red provides a good living and gets good rent.
The hope is that college graduates will have been pushed to learn, think, lead and grow. The friendships formed, self confidence discovered, and college, research, and internship experience should propel graduates out into the world to pursue higher degrees or jobs.
The Four Ways To Determine Best Fit College
Fit #1 – Academic Fit
Academically you want a place where you fit. If you are unable to handle the workload or the academic rigor are you going to be happy? I am sure failing out of college is not exactly the path you would want.
Be careful which college you are stretching to get into.
Especially legacy students who may be handed an admissions ticket but perhaps be a tad under-qualified.
You should closely evaluate your high school academic record to the most recent incoming freshman class. How do you stack up relatively speaking?
If the average student has a 3.9 unweighted GPA and a 34 ACT test score and you are sitting at 3.2 GPA and 24 ACT test score, this shows you are facing some students who know how to study well, learn well, and will take their academics seriously.
You will want to be sure the school offers programs that align to strengths, aptitudes, and interests. Typically being in a community of like thinkers and achievers is what stimulates us and makes us better.
I liken it to the basketball team that wins games against all the tough teams but loses to the teams they shouldn’t. They basically reduce their play and intensity commiserate to the lower performing team and allow themselves to get beat.
Be sure that you have a clear understanding that the college will be the best academic fit and that the school has the right opportunities, programs, and degrees for you. Sometimes kids that have absolutely no idea what direction to go consider a liberal arts school that has more time allowed to declare major.
It is important that you have clear navigation to a four-year degree that you will be satisfied with. Do the proper amount of exploration up front so that you can land on a handful of schools that give you the best opportunities.
Also understand that the bachelor’s degree is typically the first step in the higher education journey. The bachelor’s degree can be parlayed into a career by its own merit or it can be turned into higher education and masters or professional degrees.
If it is the latter you will want to ensure that you are getting into the best position to attain that next admissions entry.
Last, pay attention to your learning style and the academic approach of the school. Some students are better in smaller class sizes. Some students prefer smaller class size, experiential learning, projects, and papers format common at smaller, private universities versus larger class, lecture, quiz, and test formats common at public universities.
Fit #2 – Financial Fit
Paying for college is becoming more difficult as the cost of college has risen over 5% a year since the nineties.
The cost of college is more than just tuition.
There are fees, books, parking, food/dining hall, room & board, and allowance that can commonly cost $20,000 per school year by themselves, not even including tuition.
The average ANNUAL public university total cost is near $20,000 and the average ANNUAL total cost of private universities is between $40,000 and $50,000.
The goal of every college graduate should be to graduate with the least amount of debt possible. Zero debt.
If mom and dad are footing the bill (and are not having to borrow to do so themselves) then it is important to understand their limits. For example, there is a social aspect to college that also costs money. Expenses related to going shopping, going out to club events or games and weekend adventures are just a few.
It is important to have “the talk” up front with your parents BEFORE college list building and the applications are submitted. You need to understand what is feasible and what is not feasible. This includes any allowance, any strings that may be attached, and what the ground rules are for your paying for all or any part of college.
Remember it is not worth your parents borrowing from their 401k or taking out an extra or new mortgage on their home in order to pay for tuition bills. The last thing you want is for your parents to not be able to retire and take care of themselves as they age.
As important as gaining admission is getting a solid understanding of Financial Aid, which starts with the Free Application For Financial Student Aid (FAFSA). Effective in 2016 the FAFSA submission date is moved to an earlier date of October 1 that should allow for time to gain vital feedback to factor into the college decision.
The family should meet with a financial advisor to discuss the offers and truly ensure you are comparing all colleges offers properly, comparing each by net price per year.
You do not want to start out life with an insurmountable debt situation. It makes the most sense to get the bachelor’s degree for the least cost option and understand the payback ramifications for any loans required.
Fit #3 – Social Fit
Does the school have students that you will want to go to school with?
We all want to fit in and have a sense of belonging. It is key that you feel that this is a comfortable place, with similar students who like the same things, have the same types of interests.
When visiting did you conduct a bench test where you sat on a bench in the middle of campus and in the student union hall to just observe students and watch them interact? Observe the way they talk, interact, dress, and approach their days.
Also recognize that students have a diverse range of students coming from many backgrounds (socioeconomic, geographic, interests).
That said your typical math personality and art personality may be quite different. You may be conducting your bench test and see the marching band walk past.
Just be aware that there are all kinds of people on campus, just like in the world. This is part of the cool factor of college. You will have an opportunity to learn with, meet, and work with all kinds of people.
The University of Tampa in Tampa, FL has over 8,000 students representing all 50 states and 140 countries. The Director of Enrollment Management Brent Benner told me in an interview recently that the students that do best at the University of Tampa have three primary characteristics:
- They are metropolitan – they like big cities
- They are cosmopolitan – they thrive on diversity, studying with people from different parts of the world
- They are confidently independent – the average US student is 900 miles from home and can thrive on own
A couple of points made by Brent is that upon visiting campus prospective students are quick to see this diversity and make up of the campus and students commonly self select based on their college visit. They are either comfortable or not. He also stated that the #1 reason kids leave school is homesickness. It is important that the students have a strong sense of independence.
This supports the notion that it is always good to take the official college tours. It is also important to go exploring on your own.
Also it would be good to talk to an alum and one or more students while on the campus. Ask a couple of students a couple of questions such as why is this college awesome and would they do anything different if they were trying to figure out where to go to college again?
Did you explore what types of clubs, activities, internships are offered for students? Most schools have a committee or department responsible for student affairs, events, and internships. It is worth checking out.
Fit #4 – Physical Fit
You want to attend a school that supports a healthy, safe and comfortable environment.
- Does the school provide the necessary access to work out facilities, club or intramural sports, and support general positive health and well-being?
- Does the school support an environment conducive to learning, resting, playing, and relaxing? You need to be able to get your down time and rest.
- Will your child have the right support to maintain a positive physical self? This is important to having the right stamina and energy to getting to class on time, to staying awake through assignments and for being fully engaged to enjoy and endure the college experience.
- Is the campus safety effective at keeping the campus safe at all times?
- Does the school offer good nutrition options?
You will want to talk to students and faculty about the environment to ensure it has the amenities and offers you what you need to thrive.
Make A Plan And Work The Plan
College has never been more important or more expensive.
With the high rate of college attendance and dropout, going to a college matters that you can finish is now more important than ever.
The competitive landscape for jobs over the next twenty years will require higher education and specialized skills and training.
It is best to be prepared for the what’s next by making smart decisions along the way.
There is so much opportunity out there that you should be more excited than anxious. Seriously.
Stay calm and plan on.