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Helping Your Son or Daughter Choose a College

Parent to Parent

Janet Goebel, Director of the Honors College

Dr. Janet Goebel and Mr. Robert Cook

We have three daughters, and although one would think that two parents who are both college professors would have been experts in the college selection process, we made our mistakes along the way. Perhaps our experience will be useful to you.

Some people approach college selection as if looking for a good vacation spot. A family friend has said something about a particular school or perhaps a friend is planning to go there. Maybe a school has name recognition because of its football team or because it has been featured in a movie. The glossy brochures have attractive pictures and it sounds good. This was the thinking that led our oldest daughter to commit herself to what turned out to be over five years at Big State University in the Southwest. She had never even been to the state, but her best friend from high school was there and that February it sounded very romantic to be in the desert. She was adamant, and we let her have her way. This turned into quite a disaster academically. Her classes were huge, and in the first two years not a single one of them was taught by a real professor - all were graduate students focused on their own degree requirements. She was a number and unable to find the help she needed in classes or in planning for her future. She made it through, but without anyone ever sitting her down to talk about doing an internship or linking her academic interests to a career plan. She is happily married, but still has no clear direction for a career and thinks of her undergraduate years as "a mistake".

Of course the pull of high school friendships is strong, but sometimes the allegiance to a boyfriend or girlfriend is even stronger. I've been teaching college freshmen for over twenty years and known most of my students well enough to learn a little about their personal lives. Of the hundreds of relationships in high school that were transplanted to college, I have known only a few that survived the first year, and only one couple that graduated with the romance still intact. My nephew and his high school girlfriend were certain they were destined to be married. Each had a different college in mind. She gave in to his choice so they could be together instead of choosing the best school for her. When the relationship ended, she was stuck. Transferring is not easy, especially if scholarships are involved. The absolute worst reason for choosing a school is because a romantic interest is going there.

Another approach to college selection is the "buying a car" model. People pull out the guide books and look at the rankings and prices. The average student there has a certain SAT score and the library has a certain number of books, therefore this is a top-ranked school. People look at the student-faculty ratio and make the mistake of concluding that this means classes will be small (at some schools with graduate programs and many professors doing research, the ratio is low but the introductory classes still have 150-300 students in them). Then they head for the "showroom". They visit the school during summer vacation and note that the buildings appear in order, the staff friendly. They hear about the great things alumni are doing, and they are sold. They are approaching the school as a product which appears to guarantee that for the money they invest, they will get "the best" school in return.

We used this "product" approach with our second daughter. We agreed that with some sacrifice we could afford private college tuition for a high quality (brand name?) education. We visited in summer and found, as the guidebook said, "a campus like Eden". When the acceptance letter came, we all rejoiced. Her great future was now in the bag if only we could scrape up the money. We should have known on move-in day to expect problems. As we arrived in our Honda Accord to unload boxes in a sea of Mercedes and BMWs, we realized that the peer group here was with few exceptions of a significantly different income level. When we returned six weeks later for parents weekend, we found our daughter miserable. She was a jeans and t-shirt person with a bit of a rebellious streak. The other girls wore pearls to class and the dining hall; their values and world view were almost as uniform. One mother asked me if I realized that the school had a place to board horses and was my daughter going to Europe over spring break. I felt underdressed and uncomfortable myself, and could tell that the problem here was social, not academic. There was nothing wrong with the school. Everyone was friendly and helpful. The dean was an amazing woman who tried very hard to work with us. Our daughter just didn't fit in and wanted to leave. Plus she was now interested in graphic design, and there was only one course in that field at this small college. We had looked at the school as a product without thinking about our daughter's own personality and how she would interact with the school, socially as well as academically. (We realized too late that this college would have been a far better choice for our eldest daughter who spent her free time during high school in equestrian events and moved easily among the country club set .)

The product approach neglects the role of the student in his or her own education, but it is common and underlies many of the guidebooks and advice to parents one finds in magazines. We see it in the kinds of questions we are asked. One high school student called to inquire: "Can you guarantee I will get a job on Wall Street if I come to your school?" Of course we can't! We can provide quality instruction, advice, many opportunities for internships and other career-enhancing experiences. Will a student take advantage of all of this and succeed brilliantly? Will the kind of instruction we offer fit this young man's learning style so that he is challenged to excel? Will he find friends and social roles to expand his leadership skills? After a year or two, will he still have the same goals and really want that career or will he change his major in response to a particularly stimulating class in a field he hasn't encountered yet as a high school student? That depends on him or her. A college is not a product.

The approach I recommend for parents and students seeking a college is to think of it like searching for a mate. That may sound a little dramatic, but I think it holds up to scrutiny. Does it bring out the best in you? Does it fit with your personality and learning style? Are the qualities it possesses those that you value or even love? A new experience is going to take some getting used to, but will you feel comfortable enough there eventually to take the risks you need to take to challenge yourself and succeed? When you are there without your family and high school friends, without the identity you had in your high school and hometown communities, will it be an exciting transition or a frightening one? If you commit to this mate, will the two of you, working together, be able to turn your dreams into aspirations, then into realizable goals?

Our honors college at IUP is not for everyone. No school is. More than a first date is required to find out if you are a good match. Yes, visit in summer, but make sure you come back during the school year so you can see what it's really like. Students should sit in on classes. They should spend the night in the residence hall and see what students are like outside of class. They should ask a thousand questions, but also just listen. We find the interview is an excellent way for us to get to know each other better.

And what should the parents' role be in this extended visit? Come if you can so you too see what the school is like and can share your impressions. Though behavior may not always confirm it, your opinion is terribly important to your student. But remember that finally it is the student who must make the relationship work. We've had a few students over the years who really didn't want to be at our school, but were coerced into it by parents who liked it very much. They all found ways to leave. Some of those ways damaged their futures.

Our job in hosting students and in the final admission decision is not to find the "best" students, but to find students whom we believe will thrive in the unique environment we provide. If students can't be accepted as they really are, they will probably not be happy. We don't try to "sell" our program, but to describe it. Both our school and our students are served best when we are honest with each other.

Our youngest daughter is still a few years away from the college search, but the "finding a mate" model is the approach we will use with her.

The school where you receive your undergraduate degree is with you for a lifetime—it launches you into your future and stays with you in the form of friends, faculty who will write recommendations for you, and the foundation it gives you. There is not a "best" school or even an "excellent" school; there are only best schools for individuals because they are a good match.