Friday, September 16, 2011

College Choice: The myth of the perfect fit school

My friend Gary Daynes linked to a fascinating article from The Washington Monthly in a recent post on his blog. The article reports on the changing landscape of college admissions and highlights ConnectEdu, a company that, among other things, helps match colleges and students in attempt to find "the right fit."

Tools like ConnectEdu and others are long overdue and will be great assets for students, parents, admissions counselors and just about anyone else who cares about the college selection process.  However, there is a potential pitfall in this path which is that some students and parents may come to believe that there is a "perfect college" out there for them.  This isn't necessarily a new problem (no doubt, some students and parents have always believed this myth); however, the proliferation of college choices available to students in today's educational marketplace, the ease of accessing school information via the web, and (now) tools that help students find "the right fit" are a recipe for what psychologist Barry Schwartz has termed the "paradox of choice. "

For a student, finding a college that provides the academic programs, social opportunities, environment, diversity, etc. they are looking for is a great thing.  But, the reality is that the list of schools meeting these requirements is likely to include at least a handful of potential "matches," all of which could end up being a "good fit."  The operative word here is could.  I say that because the college experience a student has on a particular campus is shaped largely by what the student does once they get there.  All the intramural sports, small class sizes, service learning opportunities, and research labs in the world won't make a difference without an engaged, invested, and proactive student on the other end.  And, I don't hear this message being voiced very often in the discussions about school choice.  Rather, many students (and their parents) are increasingly believing that their college experience will be made or broken by the initial choice they make regarding which school to attend.  What happens when a student enrolls at the "perfect fit" school suggested by a match-making service, and then mistakenly believes all her work is done?  Will she put forth the effort to become engaged in her campus, get integrated into the community, and do the hard work to find her niche?  Maybe, but not if she assumes that club membership, relationships w/ faculty members, and engaging academic experiences will happen on their own.

So, it seems important to temper conversations about finding the right fit, with complementary discussion about the responsibility students have to shape and mold their experience once they arrive on a campus.  Otherwise, our institutions will be welcoming excited students who want to be at our schools, but who have no expectation of putting forth the effort necessary to have a great college experience.

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