College Choice: What Matters

February 1, 2012

As high school students try to figure out which colleges to focus upon, they typically receive dozens, even hundreds, of brochures, viewbooks, letters, emails and other materials from colleges and universities seeking their attention.  How do choose among these?

On a listserv I read, a college official writes:

An observation from the trench – we are running an empirical study in my house with one high school junior.  Our daughter has said that academic reputation is very important.  This is her research method:  when she goes through the mail, she picks up the envelope, reads the name of the school out loud, and looks at my face.  More than half of the envelopes she recycles, half of the remaining she does not open but throws on the table for me to put in her “college mail” box.  I am actually trying NOT to telegraph opinions (encourage her to visit the websites, read the guidebooks, blah, blah, blah) but she has lived with me for 17 years.  Even if I had a bag over my head she would make inferences from tone of voice.  It is making me nuts.

The college visit will be extremely important eventually, but I fear that uninformed opinions that parents and peers have about reputation are far more important for making the short list.   When you experience the amount of mail that swamps them, who would blame them for clutching at anything to shorten the list.

Then the question is whether parents and peers are informing themselves from reputable sources or from other uninformed parents and peers.  I fear the latter and I despair.

That was my experience, too, a decade ago. My son had a pile of mail, opened and unopened. He read it (or didn’t) while sitting on a white throne in the smallest room in the house.  Most of the envelopes were never opened, at about $5.00 apiece (or more) to produce and mail.  The pile got to be about a foot high.  He opened the ones that somehow he had “heard about” — from me, his mother, a friend, or someone.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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