Your College Search: Finding the Right Fit

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Updated on Oct 10, 2011

Today’s high school students feel tremendous pressure to be admitted to a “good” college. They start grooming their transcripts in middle school, pursuing activities and classes that they hope will impress admissions officers at highly selective colleges. But the constant struggle to achieve is taking its toll on our children. 

The award-winning documentary “Race to Nowhere” illustrates the consequences of the desperate pursuit to be admitted to a top college: “… cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.”

Alice Kleeman is the College Advisor at Menlo-Atherton High School, a large public school in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first thing you see when you walk into her office is a sign that says, “Stress Is Optional!” It’s the perfect expression of her belief that “right-fit” colleges are waiting with open arms for any student who has spent his high school years developing his own interests instead of following a prescribed path. 

“A right-fit college is a place where you can be happy and comfy for four years,” Kleeman explains to her students. “It is easy to get swept up in selecting colleges based on prestige, name recognition, hearsay and stereotypes, peer and parent pressure—but the decision about where to go after high school is too important to be made in this way. College is an exciting step toward greater independence and a satisfying life—one that only you will be living.”

Still, it’s hard for us to let go of the idea that a degree from a highly selective college is the best predictor of future success. But what does “highly selective” mean? If we consider any college that admits one third or fewer of its applicants, there are about 50-60 U.S. colleges that fall in this category. But, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. has over 2,500 4-year colleges. This means that our children are knocking themselves out to compete for admission into 2% of the colleges available to them. Is admission to these colleges really worth the stress it takes to get in?

In 1999, economists Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger published a study called "Estimating the Payoff of Attending a More Selective College." Their findings went against conventional logic: “Going to an academically elite college does not necessarily boost your earnings potential compared to a less elite college.” In fact, ambition turned out to be more important than acceptances: “It appears that student ambition, as reflected in the quality of the school to which he or she applies, is a better predictor of earning success than what college they ultimately choose or which college chooses them." 

The researchers cited the experience of Steven Spielberg, who was rejected by both USC and UCLA film schools, but achieved wild success after attending a less prestigious program. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that most CEO’s went to state universities or lesser-known private colleges, and that “leadership, talent, and ambition have more to do with getting to the top than a degree from a prestigious college.”

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