When Searching for a College, There is No One Definition of “Fit”

By Jeff Selingo

There’s no denying that the competition for a seat at a specific college is much tougher for today’s students than it was for their parents. But it’s not true that getting into any selective college is actually that much harder. Even top colleges accept higher numbers of students than they need because they know only between a third and a half of those accepted will say yes to their offer.

Of course, the marketing is designed to make students focus on a “dream” school and a “perfect fit.” It’s not about the similarities that colleges have—it’s about the purported uniqueness of each. No one sends high school juniors a glossy brochure explaining that the top liberal arts colleges are pretty similar. Or a viewbook about engineering co-op programs that says here are a couple of good options for you. Who can blame students for focusing instead on individual brands? Remember that’s what colleges are selling.

Recently, I hosted a webinar with Huntington Learning Center about finding the right “fit” in a college. (You can watch the entire virtual event here.) Here are my four key takeaways from the webinar:

There is no one meaning of “fit.” Think of “fit” in three dimensions. The first is academic fit. Does the college have my major? Does it offer other majors I might be interested in just in case I want to switch? Will I be challenged by classmates and professors or will I slack off if there isn’t a culture of wanting to do well?

The second dimension is social fit. Are sports and Greek life important to me? Do they have a variety of clubs that I might be interested in? Do I want to be in a city or a rural area? Do I want to go home on weekends?

The final dimension is one that is often ignored until it’s too late and that’s financial fit. Will I qualify for need-based financial aid? Merit aid? What’s the mix of loans, grants, and work study? Right now, too many students don’t know the actual price tag of a college until after they’re accepted and receive their financial aid offer—shortly before the May 1 deadline for choosing where to go. Use the net-price calculators colleges are required to display on their websites to project your estimated aid package as you’re developing your list of colleges. Use my list of “buyers and sellers” to determine which institutions give out the most in merit aid. The more you winnow colleges early on for “financial fit” the easier it will be to eliminate institutions late on because they’re unaffordable.

Find value as well as fit. Only about half of students who go to a four-year college actually graduate in four years. While most students and their families go to college with every intention of graduating within four years, things get in the way: students can’t get classes they need, credits don’t transfer as expected, students don’t find friends and leave, or tuition becomes more difficult to cover than first thought.

Learn more about college readiness here!

As you’re looking for the right fit, pay attention to retention rates. That’s the number of students who return for their sophomore year. The national average is around 81%, so you want to go to a place at that level or above. Also, scrutinize graduation rates and “predicted rates” for students like you, since rates differ by gender and major, for example. The average graduation rate is 50% for the bachelor’s degree in 4 years and 62% in 6 years. You can find all the stats you need on collegeresults.org.

How you go to college is more important than where you go. The problem with often-quoted statistics about the success of graduates from selective schools is that they overlook the role that the individual student plays in their own eventual success—both the social and financial “capital” they bring to their undergraduate careers is very impor­tant. Top colleges don’t take just anyone who applies. They accept smart students who exhibit promise—or who are well connected or come from upper-middle-class and wealthy families—and then unite them with top-notch faculty, research opportunities, ambitious classmates, and an exten­sive alumni network.

Top-ranked institutions have long sold us on those distinctions, telling prospective students and their families that the brand name on the degree is what matters most when it comes to success after college. But in recent years, economists have been digging deeper into a stockpile of data from tax records and job postings. What they’re finding is starting to shift the conversation around the question “Does it matter where you go to college?” For economists, it’s a much more nuanced answer than before: majors and skills might count for more in the job market than the college itself.

Take a look at the U.S. Education Department’s College Score­card (collegescorecard.ed.gov) to get a granular look at what graduates earn and how much debt they take on broken out by academic program, not just the college they attended.

Go off the beaten path on the campus tour. Visit a class—ask in advance about sitting in on a class you might actually take. Notice what happens before and after class with the professor. Go see a professor during office hours—check in on a faculty member in your intended major. Walk the campus and eat in the dining hall. Visit the career center, the library, and talk to students.

ABOUT Jeff Selingo

Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named among the 100 Notable Books of the year by the New York Times. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also writes a bi-weekly newsletter on all things higher ed called Next, and co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.


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