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Helping Students Choose Their Own Adventure in Higher Ed

Published:  September 25, 2012
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"Moment of Slay" Photo Licensed CC by genista

What information do students and families most want to know about a prospective college or university? Is it the same as what policymakers and institutions think they need to know? The truth is, we know shockingly little about how students decide where to go to college, making it difficult to figure out how to help students choose colleges that will be the best “fit.”

As someone who has worked with students and in policy, I understand how powerful contextual and trustworthy information about colleges can be. But information only helps students and families if it gets into their hands and they know how to use it. That’s why over the next few months at Higher Ed Watch, I will be sifting through and reviewing free online resources about the college process that students, families, guidance counselors, college access professionals, and others can use to meet their unique needs.

The idea for this project came about last week when Kevin Fudge from American Student Assistance and I presented "Helping Students and Families Choose Their Own Adventure Successfully" at the National College Access Network’s annual conference. We realized through our work with students at the federal TRIO program’s Educational Opportunity Centers in Boston (we were co-workers before I transitioned to policy) that the decision about where to go to college can seem like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where each decision is fraught with unpredictable outcomes. Choose wrongly and you might walk into the proverbial dragon’s lair. Choose correctly and you will be able to get to that light at the end of the tunnel.

Using cases of real students, we asked the audience of mostly college access professionals to choose which paths students should take. Although this was an audience of professionals whose job it is to help students make good decisions, there was wide disagreement about the path to take. Often they were surprised about how financial packages, that seemed robust at first, could add up to significant loan debt year after year.

Low-income, first-generation students are less likely to know how to find good information about the college-going process than their more-resourced peers. For them, they can very quickly end up in the dragon’s lair. This poses numerous problems, including the phenomenon of under-matching in which students enroll at institutions where they are academically over-qualified. Research has shown that students tend to have favorable outcomes in higher education if they attend the most selective institution for which they’re academically (and arguably financially) qualified. Therefore, the opaque college-going and financing process can lead to persistent under-matching for students who need the most help and support.

While information may not be a panacea for the nation’s college drop-out and student loan debt problem, it can help empower all students to make better decisions about which college or university will best meet their academic, financial, and social needs. The good news is that there's an abundance of free resources available to students and their families, but they haven’t been organized in a practical way. Many students don’t know where to start and which resources to trust. With a little help, students will be able to arm (and armor) themselves appropriately for their adventure.

Stay tuned for the resource reviews, which should appear here on Higher Ed Watch bi-weekly. Feel free to contact me with ideas for what resources to review.



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