The College Choice Conundrum

We travel extensively to college campuses around the country to listen to students, faculty, staff and administrators speak about their experiences. During discussions with students, we always ask about how they ended up at x, y or z university and what helped them to make that decision. In a recent session, we heard one student say that he was very pleased with his choice, but that he ultimately “didn’t know how to choose.” Despite the relative abundance of manuals, brochures and in-person meetings that focus on college choice, students (and families) remain uninformed or even mystified about the best or most useful methods for choosing a college or university.

Indeed, a recent poll by Gallup, which asked college alumni if they regretted their choice of institution, field of study or degree type, concluded that the majority (51%) of American degree-holders would re-do some aspect of their college experience. Out of those individuals polled, 28% said that they would choose a different college or university altogether. Additionally, the survey identified that individuals who pursued certain fields (like STEM) or types of degrees (associate or graduate degrees versus Bachelor’s) are, on average, less likely to have second thoughts about their experiences. Finally, one of the most striking (although not totally unpredictable) insights of the survey related to age: persons who pursued, and completed, a college or university degree at a later age (that is, 30 or older at the time of completion) are happier with their decisions.

Are traditional college-aged students capable of making formative life decisions? This seems like the obvious question to arise from both the quantitative data and the qualitative data that we often collect on campus visits. For many, the answer to this question is a resounding, “no!” However, I argue that not only is the answer to this question conditioned by class, race and gender (for instance, first-gen students with a lower SES will have fewer “choices” than a [male] student from an affluent neighborhood), but it presupposes that the information and guidance available to college-age students are somehow free of vagueness, confusion or inaccuracy. Put differently, are regrettable choices the fault of the students themselves or are institutions responsible for generating discontent?

Brandon Busteed writes that “your feelings about going back and doing it differently are influenced by myriad factors such as whether your major still has relevance in a dynamic labor marketplace or if you ended up making good money (or not) in your career after college.” Yet, who determines “relevance” or what constitutes “good money”? The marketplace? At stake here is the fact that it is precisely when institutions base their messaging and communications (and their academic offerings for that matter) on these abstractions that they have already lost. Not only are these factors ill-defined (or, indeed, undefinable), but they do little to address the primary objective of all colleges and universities: to educate. Outcomes rhetoric certainly helps assure prospective students and families that something will happen to/for students after they graduate, but an over-reliance on outcomes data like starting salaries, famous alumni or big-name companies that employ graduates automatically devalues the actual student experience on college and university campuses.

Regret is a necessary feature of human life. But if we continue to perceive higher education as solely a means to an end, then regret is not only inevitable, it is also incurable. Institutions that rely too heavily on outcomes to market themselves undermine their missions and ultimately generate the very regret or dissatisfaction that they might hope to avoid. Yes, we can all agree that choosing a college is a huge decision for 17-year olds, no matter what their background. But, what are colleges and universities doing to ensure that students make the right decision or to convince them that their experience on campus (whether physical or virtual) could be more valuable than any dollar amount could encompass?

Blaming current problems and issues on changes in “public opinion” about higher education is a too little, too late strategy. The institutions that survive over the next ten or more years will be those that actively seek to both get back to the essentials of education and to take back control of their narrative—rather than passively allowing “the marketplace” to dictate the terms of their existence. This means engaging current students, alumni, faculty and other stakeholders in meaningful collaboration around how colleges and universities function (or not) and educating prospective students about college choice in a way that serves higher education as a whole.  

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Amy Mallory-Kani

Amy is a Writer at RHB.