There’s an article making the rounds on social media, claiming it doesn’t really matter where you go to college, as long as you apply yourself and make the most of the opportunities available at wherever you end up going. Given the timing of the piece, it’s safe to say the article is designed to cushion the blow when the first round of application decisions start coming out next week. I imagine the intent is to offer support to students when a college tells them No, or worse yet, Maybe.
That intent is very important, but it is also a little misguided. Students certainly need to understand there are probably several colleges that offer what they’re looking for in terms of size, location, cost, atmosphere, major, and more. In developing this list of qualities, the student may come across one school they see as Perfect, where an offer of admission will be seen as making the sacrifices of high school more than worth it, and a No will lead to the conclusion that all of that hard work and learning just wasn’t worth it. That can be dangerous, no matter what decision the college makes, so a conversation about Perfect schools is important, to be sure, and should be had throughout the counseling process.
That’s very different from telling a student “Pick anywhere, and you’ll be fine.” A student interested in Criminal Justice isn’t going to get excited about a school that doesn’t offer that major, no matter how likely they are to change their major once they start college. The same is true for a student who is looking for a college rich with school spirit who ends up at a commuter campus. The classes may be the same as at the more spirited school down the street, but for that student, the college experience won’t be. And students who end up at a school that calls for more financial resources than their budget can allow? They will never spend a day in class without worrying how they’re going to pay all of this off. That isn’t college; that is a state of perpetual anxiety.
Before labeling this concern as a defense of a generation of unresilient snowflakes, think about the process most counselors use when helping students pare down the list of colleges they should consider. Effective college counselors ask students strong open-ended questions that limit the range of possible schools. “What are you looking for in your next school?,” “Do you know what you’d like to study?,” and “Does the location of the school matter to you?” are all designed to get a student to think about the aspects of college that will offer the right mix of opportunity, challenge, and support for them. What does it say to a student who has embraced online college research, college fairs, and campus visits in search of the right colleges—things you encouraged them to do-- when you now tell them, in essence, hey, just kidding?
For most students, college is the first time in their lives they have some say about where they go to school, or at least want to go to school. A well-developed college list reflects the student’s best understanding of who they are, what matters to them, and how they see the world. Telling them now they’ll be fine no matter what college they go to disrespects their aspirations, their understanding of self, and their investment in the college search. The college selection process started with the student’s vision of what success looks like. It’s best to use that as a guide until the process ends.