College Decision

Over on the Motherlode blog at The New York Times, writers KJ Dell’Antonia and Hope Perlman discussed the importance, or lack of importance, in attending a prestigious college. The two pieces laid out the opposing viewpoints on chasing admission to an excellent college.

Perlman’s piece focused on the benefits that can accrue from attending a well-known college in terms of contacts, and later jobs, and despite hoping her daughter becomes a happy well-rounded adult, she would like her to have this opportunity.

Dell’Antonia’s rebuttal stated that ambition would lead to success and that it ultimately matters what you do with your education, not where you obtained it.  She theorizes that she will not care where her kids attend college when the time comes.

But there is a third perspective, I believe. There is a series of reasons why attending an excellent college is enriching for a student’s life that has nothing to do with jobs or careers, prestige or contacts.  College is about the four years, not just the rest of life.

College, College Decision, College Admissions, Motherlode

Neither mother has been through the college process and are still speaking of aspirations and concerns.  Having come through the other side of this process, I come down on the side of urging a child to get into a good college, but not for the reasons either writer suggested.

It is a Time to Find Out What You are Made Of

Trying to get into a good college requires a huge sustained effort on the part of a high school student over a number of years.  Whether a child attains admittance to a good university or not, there are true benefits to being challenged at this crucial age and learning the extent of one’s capabilities.

Universities with competitive admissions select students based on high performance in a number of different realms including academics, athletics and the arts.  For many kids, high school is one of the first chances to really challenge and stretch themselves along one of these dimensions, and college admissions aside, this seems like a great moment in life to do so.

At 15, most kids don’t know what they want to study or where life will lead them, how could they?   At 18, a few more have an idea but since most kids have been to high schools that do not offer engineering, sociology, business, Women’s Studies and computer science…it would be very difficult for them to know if any of these, or many other, subjects excited their intellectual passions.  By impressing upon them the need to do their best during the high school years, options are left open and paths unencumbered until they know more about themselves and the world.

Great Colleges Offer Things Far More Important Than Prestige

Good universities and colleges offer a huge range of fields of studies and majors, and although many kids profess to know what they want to study in college, in reality, the vast majority have no idea and do not end up majoring in the subject they wrote down on their application. This argues for attending a college that has the resources to provide a wide array of academic options.

Selective colleges spend far more on instruction than less selective institutions.  A recent study showed that “highly competitive” colleges had twice the resources to spend in the classroom than “competitive” schools. These resources can be used to offer small seminars, better qualified faculty and teaching assistants, research opportunities for undergraduates, laboratories, libraries, theaters and better academic advising. Parents may be paying nearly the same but the college is putting far more resources into the classroom.

Taking courses is just a part of college life.  Better endowed colleges also offer a huge array of clubs, teams, distinguished lecturers, concerts, trips and all manner of activities.  These offerings enrich the university experience in social, intellectual and cultural ways that less affluent colleges cannot.

Expanding Their World

There is a rough, though certainly not perfect, correlation between the academic strength of a school and its resources.  Ironically, wealthier schools are able to create highly diverse student bodies as they have the ability to reach into deeper pockets to make financial aid available. Schools with strong academic profiles attract foreign students further enriching their student body.

For an excellent student from a less advantaged background, those schools that are considered to be very competitive, highly competitive or most competitive may actually cost the student less.  Even as the school spends far more on instruction per student, the out-of-pocket expenses for students receiving aid declines.

Attending a great college enriches a student’s life in ways having nothing to do with jobs, prestige or contacts. Here's why the college decision matters.

Lighting a Fire

One argument on Motherlode for not pushing kids into selective universities was that ambition cannot be handed down, that the drive for such things must come from the student, not the parent. Dell’Antonia makes the point, “Passion and drive are transferable from topic to topic and place to place, but not from person to person. My ambition can’t substitute for theirs.” By and large I agree, but if you want your kid to show passion, work hard, find his ambition and throw himself into the life of his university….put him among other kids who display these qualities.

If I have learned one thing about parenting it is that I may not be able to get my kids to do something, but their friends can. The peers our children are surrounded with have a profound impact on their outlook and on their vision for their own future.  If they are surrounded by deeply motivated peers, kids who devote themselves to their sports, studies and activities, they are more likely to do the same.  Ambition may not be genetic, but it is contagious.

It isn’t Just about Getting into College, it is about Staying There and Graduating

When we send our kids off to college we hope they will graduate, in four years if at all possible.  Good colleges have low drop-out rates and high four-year completion rates. If at the college your child has chosen it is the norm to graduate in four years, that will become his norm.  He may not achieve it, but he will see that as the goal.  At a school with good resources, this will be made easier with academic guidance, extra help as needed, and the ability to get into the classes required for timely graduation. Not graduating in four years is costly in terms of added years of tuition and the opportunity cost of delaying the start of a career.

For kids from less privileged backgrounds, the difference between going to a really good university and a middling one can be the difference between graduating and not. The New York Times this week explained, “If they make it to top colleges, high-achieving, low-income students tend to thrive there, the paper found. Based on the most recent data, 89 percent of such students at selective colleges had graduated or were on pace to do so, compared with only 50 percent of top low-income students at nonselective colleges.”

College is About College

So, to the question that ultimately leads to the topic of college decision: Do you weigh in on your child’s high school course selection and urge them to try and get into a “good school?” The answer, I believe, is yes.  I say this not because a better school might buy your child a permanent gold star on their resume nor because they might rub shoulders with the future elite, but rather for what will happen to them during the four years they are in college, years that loom large in our lives.

No 15-year-old can comprehend the differences in classes and activities, the diversity of students, the atmosphere of ambition that will greet them if they gain acceptance to a good university. They cannot know how their perspective will be broadened by classmates from different worlds and professors who are among the best in their field.  They cannot know the vast academic and non-academic opportunities that await them but, as their parents, we do.

Here is a wonderful piece from our friends at College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step from the noted psychologist Michael Thompson on why the college process looks so different through the eyes of teens and parents.



  1. says

    Excellent post. We’re not ready for the college questions yet, but we are starting to look ahead to what high schools are in our area. In Milwaukee we have school choice, and you have to apply to the high school you want to attend. It’s daunting, and has us considering the same ideas on a more local scale.

    I think of selecting a school the way I think of selecting a violin. The trick is to find a match. Just because a particular violin is considered good doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. The right violin for me might be terrible for someone else. The cost of a violin tells you something about it, but not whether it’s a match. Sometimes the less expensive instrument is the one that fits. I hope when the time comes I can apply the same perspective to helping my kids find the right schools for each of them.

    • says

      Yes fit is important, could not agree more. I went to a very inexpensive college and received a wonderful education. I just hoped to suggest that the extra effort to get into a good college is worth it given how much our wonderful college have to offer students while they are there.

  2. says

    My own experience is this: my son went to UCSD, then on to Hopkins for graduate work, got his Masters there and was planning to stay and get his phd but Yale recruited him so he moved up to New Haven and got his phd (and another masters) there. I don’t think we pressured him at all to go to prestigious schools; it could have been a tiny college in a small town, but it was more important to us that he figure out what his interests were and to love what he did. He started out in molecular biology and that’s why he was at UCSD, and then in his junior year he decided he wanted to major in philosophy and literature -in German. He spent his junior year abroad in Germany (a Jewish boy!) and from there on, all of his successes are as a result of loving what he does. Now he’s a prof at Yale and is giving back to kids that are just a few years younger than he is (and some older).
    This was a longwinded way to say that I feel there’s enough pressure on kids now without making them feel like a failure if they don’t get into those few top schools and maybe we should all dial it back a bit.

    • says

      I certainly hope I did not give the impression that I thought kids should go to a few top schools. I was just suggesting that there are many reasons to try to go to a good school and not to be indifferent or to go to a school for a specialized program (look at your sons experience) because kids do not usually know what they want.

      BTW I graduated from UCSD! But there are hundreds and hundreds of really great schools, not a handful. And I think it is worth trying to go to them and take advantage of all of the things they offer.

  3. says

    Great post! My husband and I have sent five through college, most of them to good state schools (which he and I also attended, many years ago.) All are doing well. Here in New England we are blessed with the UMass system, which is inexpensive, fairly selective and very good. Many families in other states dream about getting their kids into UMass, but within Massachusetts I see many with this private-school snobbery who bankrupt themselves and mortgage the house to send their kids to a private school. Anyone with a child contemplating college should read Zac Bissonnette’s book, “Debt-Free U,” that questions the value of expensive private schools. Many of these private schools that are not Harvard or Yale charge as much or more, and don’t really open any doors or confer any advantage. He cites one study that showed that kids who got into Harvard but opted for a less prestigious school did as well or better 10 years after graduation than their peers who chose the Ivy.

    • says

      As you can see above I too went to a great state school. I was very lucky to grow up in CA where there are so many fantastic public schools. Didn’t mean this as a private v. public debate, because as you say so many of the great universities in this country are public.

  4. Anonymous says

    Hope Perlman writes,” I’ve been in conversation with them about their college hopes for their children and they’ve looked me in the eye and told me they really, really don’t care if the college their child attends is prestigious, as long as it’s the right fit.” Whether she intends to or not, this underscores the crux of the matter: we need to stop believing that “good” college is analogous to “prestigious” college. I’m just off a week of college visits with my child and saw colleges of varying “prestige,” yet every one was a good college: a college at which my child would have a stimulating and ambitious peer group, a talented and inspiring faculty, and in most cases, an impressive physical plant that supports learning in ways that exceed our wildest imagining. Yes, encourage ambition. Encourage effort. Encouraging excitement for learning. But the right “fit” might be a good college that doesn’t have a widely recognized name attached to it. The upside of the increasingly competitive college scene is so many colleges now boast an extraordinarily inspiring peer community. To prioritize “right fit” over prestige does not mean choosing other than a “good” college. It means choosing the right good college. The “panic” factor seems to drive smart people to dismiss the value of “fit” as they cling to the safety of “prestige.” Aren’t we better parents than that? That said, the one tremendous advantage the so called “prestige” colleges may offer is greater funds to devote to financial aid and to attracting a diverse student group — both substantial benefits. Just not the ones people panicking about “prestige” usually have in mind!

    • says

      Any school that can really encourage excitement for learning has done their job, in my mind. So much of college seems to be focused on where it will get you, I hope I made the point that college should be an end in itself as well.

  5. says

    Great post, and I especially like the point that surrounding your child with motivated and achievement-oriented peers will encourage him or her to achieve also. My daughter went to Boston University, not considered a “top” school, but most certainly an excellent one, especially for her major, Communications. My son is at University of Arizona, a far less prestigious school but with the nationally recognized SALT Center for students with learning challenges, which has been immeasurably valuable in helping him manage college studies as a person with ADD. Both were the right schools for very different reasons. Choosing a college is THE most important decision a child will make, and it must be done thoughtfully and carefully.

    • says

      Great programs that both of your kids went to and I know that for your daughter it led to a fantastic job in her field. It is the most important choice they make and they make it with so little knowledge of college life. Parents have a real job here to try and lay out all of the things that the college experience can be so that kids can find the right settings for themselves.

  6. Tina says

    What a GREAT post! I have a 2/3 success rate on kids/college. The epic fail third of the equation was I think mostly due to that individual child– the one where personality+child+stubbornness seems to out rank each and every plan to instill success. The takeaway for me is to remember that we as parents can plan until the cows come home but inevitably finding the barn is up to the kid and that while we want to own this as OURS, most of the time it simply isn’t. I do still wish for a time machine and a magic wand! 😉

    • says

      You are so right. I think our job is to tell them about college life and make sure they find there way to a school that has the many things they want and perhaps things (majors, activities) that they don’t even know about yet. If you find that magic wand, just be sure to let the rest of us know where to get one!

  7. says

    I’ve put two through college, one in the US and one in the UK. The last payment was in January!
    I also consult with international students who want to attend college in the US. All they’ve heard of are the “usual suspects” at the top of the US News rankings, which is what many people refer to when talking about quality of education in the US. It’s so rewarding to see these students consider other great schools that aren’t on the international radar.
    I have such disregard for the US News rankings. Malcolm Gladwell analysed their system in a New Yorker article which I give out to parents and students any time they mention rankings. It can be found online in the New Yorker archives or here: (
    It seems that the US News rankings have become so heady to college administrators that some are willing to massage the data they submit to gain an extra point or two. In the last year, two very highly ranked, and respected colleges have admitted to inflating the SAT scores of their incoming class.
    I find it interesting that another, possibly more accurate survey at measuring quality of education, (National Survey of Student Engagement – NSSE) is not available to the general public by institution unless a participating college publishes their results.
    Sorry to get on a soap box but I could go on about the state of the business side of higher education institutions for a long time.

  8. says

    Thank you for your soapbox, truly. This is hugely valuable information and I hope that parents see it here. My kids considered going to the UK for their education and because they had been here for high school felt ill equipped to know for certain what they wanted to study. How do you think the two higher education systems compared?

    • says

      There’re a lot of positives and negatives in both education systems. What my students have had a hard time with is the admissions process. In the UK (and much of the rest of the world) it’s all about test scores. No one cares about your athletic prowess or that you built schools in Outer Mongolia over the summer. The students don’t understand the opacity of the US system.

  9. says

    My mom is one of the directors of admissions for Yale University so we talk about these issues all the time. For me, I can’t even imagine how I’m possibly going to get my kids in an elite school for one reason…price. The cost is so dang high. But this was a very thought provoking post!

    • says

      I hope I wasn’t suggesting just elite schools. I went to the amazing University of California at about a third of the cost of private schools.

  10. Carpool Goddess says

    “Ambition may not be genetic, but it is contagious,” so true! My kids went to college-prep high schools and I think it must have been in the water. It’s crazy to me how competitive the college process has become and I really feel for these kids. I think it’s too much pressure.

  11. Richard Thompson says

    One of the points you made that was very interesting was that it isn’t all about getting into college, but staying there to graduate as well. I think a lot of people only concentrate on getting in, but once they get there find they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Great article!

  12. says

    Enjoy the college subject as a 6-tuition (3 hs) mom with one college grad, one college senior and one rising college freshman–and thanks for the beautiful photo of Trinity College in Hartford, Ct.–my daughter’s beloved school-great academics, sports and a city location is an underappreciated asset for internships.

  13. says

    That time when we are in newly Admit in College we don`t have enough Confident really and i love to read this blog very heart Touchy topic you select and you remind my past memories in college thanks..