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The Less-Prestigious College Choice

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

"Students don’t always attend the most selective college which has admitted them."

Every year, I post the above reminder on my personal Facebook page. And, without fail, somebody reaches out and thanks me for writing it—I suppose because that which is intellectually obvious during normal seasons of life can lose meaning when the emotions run high.

If you ask a twelfth-grader where they are going to college, remember: your response matters to them. They are sometimes too road-weary to be rational, and they look for cues. Let's say you know that Susie was admitted to MIT, but she tells you she will attend a college you've never heard of. Please quell any impulse to convey confusion or disappointment. Don't scratch your head or wrinkle your nose; instead, exude enthusiasm and encouragement.

But, you may wonder: Why would a student choose to attend a less-selective institution even though they were admitted to a highly-selective one?

Every passing admissions cycle brings more reasons for students to think twice before committing to attend the most prestigious of their options Here are 7:

1. Cost

Students without demonstrated financial need will be expected to pay full price at a lot of pricey colleges—and students admitted to such colleges undoubtedly have options pay a lot less elsewhere. Think $85K/year vs. full-ride.

2. Grad school plans (and cost)

In my ten years as an IEC, I probably worked with 30 or so students with plans to attend medical school. I can only remember one who chose to attend their most selective undergraduate option. Med school is expensive. Why burn though all the education money on the front end?

3. Graduation rates (and cost)

This one hits close to home. One of our sons made a last-minute decision not to attend his dream school. His dad and I had studied the data and tripped over some alarming 4-year grad rates. We coached our son to ask some difficult questions about the rates as they related to his situation. That conversation, among others, led him to make the very difficult decision to put his long-term needs in front of his short-term wants.

4. Desire to be a big fish in a small pond

Some kids decide they are more likely to thrive in an environment they can enter as cream of the crop. Admission to an honors college or competitive scholarship cohort can open doors at a university and avail students access to research and leadership opportunities less dependable for them at Highly Selective U.

5. Anxiety, fatigue, and/or existential crises

Anxiety and mental fatigue go hand in glove with the “big fish/small pond” notion. Students whose high school lives have been characterized by the fear and uncertainty around “getting in” may choose to attend a college where opportunities are less competitive and student bodies are more collaborative.

6. Grad school admissions

All things being equal, a more selective college strengthens a student’s application to grad school. But where are all things equal? A student who graduates summa cum laude after serving as student body president at State U is likely not going to access the same opportunities at Highly Selective U.

Prestigious universities may actively deter some students from their grad school objectives with weed-out courses and committees which decide who will enjoy their institutional endorsement as a candidate for, say, medical school. At the same time, other colleges provide a supportive network of advisors to promote a student’s cause.

7. Have I mentioned cost? And debt?

The matter of value lies with each family and ought to be grounded in the big questions which predicate the formation of a family. What are we doing and why? What's the goal here, both in the long erm and the short?

I've not often crossed the line which separates college advising from parenting advice. It seems pretty foolhardy, after all, to do so until one's own kids have reached adulthood and perhaps avoided the penal system for a few years. I offer a suggestion for my fellow moms and dads of the HS class of '25, though, because I'm afraid no one else will:

Pretend that a visitor has arrived, a time traveler from the year 2025. It is your student, aged 40. They are begging you to watch out for their best interest right now because--no matter how many AP exams they've aced--they are not equipped to understand the stakes. Most of them have never owed anyone more than twenty bucks, and none of them has seen the passage of twenty years. There's nothing wrong with some debt, for some people, in some situations. The danger comes when a life-altering financial commitment is made based on assumptions, blind faith, or an unwillingness to defer gratification.

At Moore College Data, we provide independently-sourced information about colleges and universities for counselors and families. Please visit our site!

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