| By Joel Meredith, Course Lecturer, Purdue University |
Many of us remember our senior year of high school as a time of excitement. Graduation is the culmination of years of learning and self-discovery and a major rite of passage.
Deciding on what college to attend is often part of that excitement. For many, however, it’s the biggest decision they’ve ever made and can be a huge point of stress and anxiety.
As an educator, you’re uniquely positioned to offer advice and guidance to support your students as they finalize their college decision. As a course lecturer from a Big Ten university, I’d like to share my thoughts on how to advise your students so they can make a decision that feels authentic and right for them.
There May Not Be a Perfect Decision—or a Wrong Decision
It can be tough to advise a student who feels particularly anxious about the decision-making process. A student in this position has probably done their research—and they likely came up with a solid list of respectable colleges. Unless they want to pursue a highly specialized area of study, it’s unlikely that they’ll have many objectively bad options on the list.
Encourage students to make a brief list of what’s the most important to them about their college experience. Keep it to three or four items—no more than five. Is it important that they be in a diverse and welcoming environment that will offer support? Are they looking for a challenge? Somewhere with a strong financial aid package? Maybe they could use a buffer zone from their family that will allow them space to grow on their own terms.
Once they’re settled on the criteria, tell them to go through and rank each school on how they meet the criteria and total the scores. What does it show? Is there a clear winner? If not, it’s worth revisiting the list of criteria and narrowing the list down to the top one or two criteria to see if that puts distance between the competition.
A Healthy Dose of Skepticism is Normal
Tech-savvy teenagers know how to get behind the gloss of college mailers before even setting foot on campus. And college marketing teams have taken notice and work hard to use new channels to reach students with their messaging.
Good college marketing isn’t dishonest—but it has a point of view. What marketing team is going to admit that the college cafeteria food is terrible? Or broadcast that students might find themselves housed in “dorm cubicles” at the beginning of the fall semester?
As students make their final decisions, help make sure they’ve got the full picture. This can involve some online sleuthing, or contacting current students to better understand their experience.
Here are some tools to consider:
- Reddit: Like most things on the internet, students should proceed with caution. Given the veil of anonymity, stressed-out students may use the opportunity to blow off steam. That said, Reddit is a powerful tool to check the campus pulse.
- YouTube: Gen Z influencers don’t just unbox their latest fashion or tech accessories—they unbox their college experience. For most schools, you can find social media accounts where students document and share what college life is like. These are individual perspectives that may not represent the mood of the campus, but they provide an important, unfiltered view of campus life. Check out influencers like Linh Truong to see Georgetown University through an incoming student’s eyes.
- Direct contact: One of the best ways to get an authentic feel for campus life is by talking to students who are living it! A campus visit is one way to do this, but you can also connect virtually. Don’t know where to start? Many college students have a LinkedIn profile. Encourage your seniors to create their own accounts and search for current students or recent graduates in related fields. Most people will be happy to share their experiences.
Encourage Students to Ask Questions
It’s one thing to ask how many student organizations exist on campus or what intramural sports teams the college offers. But how many of the student organizations are active? If your senior wants to play intramural softball, is there a team up and running—or will they have to help initiate and organize things?
It’s a good idea to reach out to students to ask questions. No contact information online? No problem. Email admissions to express interest and ask to speak with a student organizer or a faculty advisor.
Remind Students Prestige Isn’t Everything
For many students, rankings and prestige weigh heavily in their minds—understandably. A college education is key to financial wellbeing and future success. So, yes, on the one hand it is important for your students to find a school with a sterling reputation, excellent faculty, engaged staff, and a network of connections to empower their student body.
But rankings aren’t everything. Recent scandals at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities have thrown doubt on the reliability of self-reported data. Additionally, some key lists measure a school’s research output, which won’t necessarily have an impact on your students’ experience.
Caution Against the Disappearing College
It’s an unfortunate reality today that some schools are going through painful and difficult cuts in their program offerings—and it’s not limited to small liberal arts schools. What’s worse: since 2016, more than 90 schools have closed, announced their plans to close, or merged with another school.
The last thing you want is for your seniors to sign up for degrees that may be discontinued. While schools make every effort to ensure that students can graduate within their chosen major, programs that are undergoing cuts can be a turbulent and discouraging place for learning to occur.
Look up year-over-year enrollment numbers and ask staff how many declared majors there are. Declining enrollment is a sign that the college may be in trouble. It may also be worth checking if the university is using online, graduate, or adult learning programs to inflate their numbers.
Let Students Know: There Is No Single Path to the Commencement Stage
The college experience invites nostalgic reflection for many. The best years of your life—a time of freedom, friendship, and football tailgates.
But that’s not how it goes for everyone. Some students can’t afford to live on campus or may transfer into a four-year school after attaining an associate degree and feel like an outsider. Others may feel like they don’t belong because of their identity. As a queer student on a college campus consistently noted by the Princeton Review for its less-than-welcoming atmosphere for LGBTQ students, I fit into the latter category.
But there’s good news: there is no single path from freshmen orientation to commencement, and it can be powerful for students to hear that from a trusted adult. Times change and campuses evolve. But having someone openly share their struggles can instill graduating high school seniors with the self-confidence that they, too, can overcome the obstacles they will surely face during their undergrad years.
Obstacles are inevitable, but students can plan to maximize their every chance at success. For example, if you have a female senior looking at an engineering program that’s 90% male, encourage her to contact students in the program to understand what their experience is like and what support and mentorship is available. It may also be worthwhile to contact the school’s cultural centers, student organizations, or diversity and inclusion offices and ask to be put in touch with students whose experiences could be make-or-break for your seniors when they’re making their final decision.
The Final Word Belongs to Your Seniors
College decision time is a thrilling time for high school seniors. But let’s not forget that this time comes with big decisions that have lifelong effects. One of the best things we can do as educators is to take our students seriously, to provide a listening ear for their fears and affirmation for their hopes.
Meet the Author
Joel Romero-Meredith is an English PhD student and French lecturer at Purdue University with more than a decade of professional writing and marketing experience. In his free time, you’ll find Joel traveling, spending time with his husband, and extending his Welsh and Spanish lessons streak on Duolingo.