Going to College

Don't rely on family and friends

How do people make the Tectonic Decision on whether to go to college and if so, what college to select? As we shape our thinking to avoid a bad decision and a Stupidity Trap, let’s build a fact base from the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • In the US, approximately 3.6 million students graduate from high school each year. Of those graduates, about 40% go on to four-year colleges or universities. We are excluding two-year degree seekers from this analysis; approximately 20% of high school graduates attend two-year colleges, but that decision is far less costly and disruptive.

  • With a pool of 3.6 million graduates and a 40% application rate to college, that leaves us with about 1.4 million students applying to college each year. Colleges received about 12 million applications in 2021 for an average of 8.6 applications per student, up from 6.7 applications per student in 2014.

Now that we are talking about the select pool of students applying to four-year colleges (8.6 of them each, mind you), here is a statistic from AdmissionsOnly.com that will surprise you:

More than 30% of enrollees at four-year colleges do not make it to the second semester. 

That’s almost one out of every three go home for winter break during freshman year and do not return. Certainly, there are many good reasons for such a failure rate, e.g., family circumstances, illness, etc. But one out of three? 

And how about this, more than 50% of college freshmen do not get through the initial or “weed-out” classes in their initial fields of study. That’s a lot of people switching majors. 

What this tells us is there are large groups of students and families that had a seriously deficient decision-making process for a decision that would likely determine the trajectory of a person’s entire life. A Tectonic Decision if there ever was one.

A generation ago, if a student had one or two Advanced Placement (AP) exams under her belt, she was considered extraordinary. At a typical “most selective” college today, the average student granted admission has 10 or more AP exams completed. Ten AP exams is the equivalent of 10 college courses, or a full year of study. Top students are entering college with sophomore or higher standing and finishing in two to three years.

Even with all those honors high school classes, extracurricular activities, AP tests, back-breaking college essays, recommendations, and advice from family and friends the failure rate was high because the input factors into the decision were wrong.

How do we get to such a place?  

TigerMom: Well, now that you have finished your sophomore year of high school, it’s time to start visiting colleges.

JuniorGirl:  I can’t wait.  Did you see the pictures in the brochure on Uptown College? The campus looks awesome.

TigerMom:  Ok, we are going to visit 10 colleges over three weeks this summer. I want you to be able to make a good choice when the time comes.

So, what is going on here?  JuniorGirl has not yet applied to any colleges, does not have a clue as to whether she will be admitted, but TigerMom is lining up the visits. Is it some kind of psychological torture for JuniorGirl? You better get into one of these places, whether you like it or not.

In this scenario, the college visits happen, notes are taken and carefully orchestrated onsite “research” is completed at each college during the 12 to 24 hours the student is in the vicinity of the campus. 

TigerMom: So, what did you think of Uptown.

JuniorGirl:  It was awesome!

TigerMom: What did you like most?

JuniorGirl: The buildings had great air conditioning. It will be really easy to study when it’s hot.

TigerMom: I know! It so much nicer than when I went there. What else?

JuniorGirl: The tour guide was so knowledgeable about the school, and she was only a sophomore.  The picnic and ice cream we had in the quad were beautiful. It was so nice out.

TigerMom: And how about that brand new athletic center with all those treadmills and Pelotons?

JuniorGirl: I know we were only on campus for three hours, and we didn’t sit in on any classes, didn’t talk to freshmen who would be in my major, didn’t spend any time with a student advisor talking about the required core classes for all students, and didn’t look at the classes required to graduate in my major, I know Uptown is the place for me.

I can go on, but the college-visit process introduces a staggering amount of bias into the college-decision process.  So much so, that there is a better scenario:

RationalMom:  Well, JuniorGirl, I see you are delivering some good grades.  Keep it up and you will have many choices on where to go to college.

JuniorGirl:  Cool, can we do some college visits this summer?

RationalMom:  Why would we do that? How about you concentrate on keeping up the grades and submitting strong applications? You will be notified of where you are admitted in January of senior year and have until May to make a selection, which leaves us five months to make visits.

JuniorGirl:  So, do the research to figure out which schools offer courses of study that fit my academic interests? And which will give me the best shot at a job or graduate school?

RationalMom:  That’s right, then you send in applications.

JuniorGirl:  Ok, then I get into some colleges, go visit and see which one is best for me. Doing it this way, I will already be admitted to any of the schools we visit, so I know the academics will provide me with the best educational value. If there is a decent pizza place on campus, that’s a bonus.

RationalMom: Exactly. Say we visit five colleges right now. If we drive and stay in basic hotels, we will spend several thousand dollars. The average college application fee was less than $50 last year. How about you research a wider variety of colleges and apply to a few more. Seems like a logical investment trade-off: spend an extra few hundred dollars to apply to more schools and increase the chances of landing someplace that will work for you, compared with spending thousands hopscotching through a bunch of short visits to schools that may all reject you.

The question is why does the approach taken by RationalMom seem like such an outlier? Two words: Rick Singer. Please see Buying Happiness.


or to participate.