Move over, Yale and Harvard.
Not everyone needs to (or should) shop for a top-name school. You can still find lots of high-quality colleges and universities among the elites.
Gems glisten everywhere. Don’t discount the liberal arts college down the street because it may be able to offer a connection that you can’t find anywhere else.
A Stanford study says “fit” is more important than rankings. I really do believe too many students and families rely on college rankings published by well-known organizations to define quality. The higher the ranking doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for your child. The study found that the “metrics used in these rankings are weighted arbitrarily and are not accurate indicators of a college’s quality or positive outcomes for students.”
Do I even need to write any more?
- Quick Story
- Best Reasons to Look for a Non-Selective or Moderately Selective College
- 1. Your Child May Be More Likely to Get In
- 2. Your Child Will Still Take Rigorous Classes
- 3. Your Family May Experience More Personalization During the Admission Process
- 4. The College Application Process is Less Strenuous
- Regular Admission
- Rolling Admission
- Open Admission
- 5. Lower Costs
- 6. College Selectivity is Not a Reliable Indicator of Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being
- 7. Learning Engagement is Most Important
- 8. Grades May Be Higher
- Think Carefully About College Selectivity
I chatted with Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling, and she told me a great story.
“Several years ago I had a straight-A student with strong test scores and interesting extracurricular activities who was a bit lacking in self-confidence. She felt strongly that she should attend a college where she would be the ‘big fish in a little pond’ instead of the ‘little fish in a big pond.’ It was very important to her that she choose an institution where she would be at the top and be recognized as a superstar.
She set her sights on a public university with a 70% acceptance rate. She did apply to other colleges, including those that are much more selective, and was actually accepted into every school she applied to. However, she stuck with her plan to attend the public university.
She SOARED there. She was at the top of her class, where she won all sorts of awards. She is well-known at the school, and they’ve asked her to assume all sorts of leadership roles. She has made mini-promotional films for the school, and now, as a recent alumna, they’ve asked her back to speak multiple times.
In this case, she didn’t feel up to attending a highly selective university where the competition would be fierce. Instead, she decided to choose a school that isn’t overly competitive and where she would stand out. It paid off with lots of internships and job offers, and it built her confidence.”
Yessss! This is exactly what I’m talking about.
Best Reasons to Look for a Non-Selective or Moderately Selective College
Most people think the only reason your child would want to look for a non-selective college is because you couldn’t hack it due to poor academic achievement. Not so. There are lots of great reasons to opt for a less-selective institution.
1. Your Child May Be More Likely to Get In
Obviously, the fact that your child can get in is one of the reasons to apply to non-selective colleges.
How do you find out whether a college is selective or not? Take a look at its admission requirements. Most colleges list their admission requirements, which may look something like this:
- Graduate from an accredited high school or equivalent by the time of enrollment.
- Rank in the upper half of your high school graduating class.
- Have ACT or SAT-I scores high enough to predict probable success. Note: ACT and SAT test scores may not be required if you’re applying for admission right now. Many colleges do not want to place undue hardships on students who cannot take the ACT or SAT due to closed testing locations.
- English: Four years, including literature
- Math: Two or more years, including algebra, advanced algebra and geometry
- Social studies: Three or more years, including American and European history
- Sciences: Two or more years of lab science
- Foreign language: Two or more years
That may be the extent of a college’s requirements! You can also call an admission counselor for more information about specific college selectivity.
2. Your Child Will Still Take Rigorous Classes
Make no mistake — it’s a challenge to get through organic chemistry at just about any college or university. Lower selectivity institutions definitely offer rigorous coursework.
Just because your child’s valedictorian of her high school class or achieved a 34 ACT doesn’t mean that she won’t feel challenged at a lower selectivity institution.
- Some less selective colleges let academically talented students work with faculty on research projects as well.
- Students at lower selectivity institutions may also receive more personalized attention from staff.
- Some lower selectivity institutions smaller classroom size with hands-on teaching may be more conducive to learning than a large lecture hall format.
- You may get to know classmates and faculty closely and form lasting personal or professional relationships.
- You child may get more opportunities to work on projects, connect to internships through faculty and gain valuable job experience.
3. Your Family May Experience More Personalization During the Admission Process
Less selective schools must work a little harder for their students. That means you and your child reap the benefits. In other words, highly selective colleges and universities don’t have to work nearly as hard to recruit students — they naturally come to them. That means that less selective institutions must do the hard work of calling, emailing, texting and even engaging students on social media.
You’re more likely to get one-on-one attention from an admission counselor who must carefully work through an application list. As an admission counselor, it was my job to personalize the admission process as much as possible. I would try to learn:
- Students’ goals
- Other schools on their list
- Their favorite things (we once sent a box of Wheaties to a student because we knew it was his favorite cereal!)
- Connections they’d already made with others at the college
- About their families and friends
- Anything else I could think of!
We made the college search process a personalized experience — and that might just happen if you’re looking into a less selective institution.
4. The College Application Process is Less Strenuous
Chances are, your child won’t have to worry about a complicated application process if he or she is looking at a less selective institution. Here’s a quick overview.
Regular admission means your child can apply to as many colleges as possible. An application submission deadline varies between institutions. Regular admission deadlines typically fall in early January and admission offers get sent out in late March or early April. Your student has until May 1 to either accept or decline admission offers. (Your child may not encounter this type of admission, either.)
When I was an admission counselor, our college used rolling admission. Rolling admission means a college releases admission decisions regularly instead of sending them all out on one target date.
An admission committee will only review your child’s application as soon as all required information is in. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly. (Students learned of an admission decision within two weeks at our college!)
Rolling admission decisions are non-binding. This means that your child will not be required to attend that school and will not need to make a decision until May 1, which is National Candidate Reply Day.
Open admission means a college accepts any high school graduate (no matter what those grades look like) until all spaces in the incoming class are filled. Two-year community colleges immediately come to mind — most community colleges have a two-year open admission policy. Note that a college with a general open admission policy may have certain admission requirements for specific programs.
Your child probably won’t encounter these types of admission at lower selectivity institutions:
- Early Action (EA), which means your student has the option to submit an application before the regular deadline. Early action plans are not binding, which means that your child is not required to attend.
- Early Decision (ED) means your child can submit an application to his or her first-choice college before the regular deadline and get an admission decision earlier than usual. Early decision plans are binding, which means your child must attend that institution.
- Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action means your child is not required to attend if accepted. However, if using this method, your child may not apply to any other school during the early action period only.
5. Lower Costs
You’ll typically find lower selectivity institutions in areas that also include lower costs of living (not big urban areas). The savings on rent and tuition might be worth it.
Your child may be able to get an academic scholarship. Many colleges give half or full-tuition academic scholarships to students who have a very good high school GPA, ACT or SAT scores and class rank. The most selective colleges will not award your child a merit scholarship.
“We had a student who wanted to study business. Although she was accepted at multiple selective programs, she chose to study at Bentley University (45-50% acceptance rate), where they placed her into the honors program, provided her with a large scholarship, and of course, she received all the perks that came along with the honors program. She loved feeling like she was the top of the class!” says Kopp Weingarten.
Kopp Weingarten also said, “We also had a student who chose a large public university in the Midwest where she could use her AP credits to get advanced standing, basically entering as a sophomore. She graduated in three years, saved tons of money and was accepted into a top-tier Ph.D. program.”
6. College Selectivity is Not a Reliable Indicator of Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being
The Stanford study found no significant relationship between a school’s selectivity and student learning, future job satisfaction or well-being. Furthermore, the study found only modest financial benefits of attending more selective colleges — and that applied to first-generation and other underserved students.
Individual student characteristics (background, major, ambition) may make more of a difference in terms of post-college outcomes than the institutions themselves.
7. Learning Engagement is Most Important
Students’ learning among a campus community may offer the key to positive outcomes after college, according to the Stanford study. For instance:
- Students participate in service learning and thrive when they apply what they learn in the classroom to real life settings.
- Students are successful when mentors at the college encourage them to pursue personal goals.
- Those who are successful after college engage in multi-semester projects.
8. Grades May Be Higher
Your child may be more likely to graduate with honors at a less selective institution.
“When students apply to medical school, the two most important aspects of their applications are their GPA and their MCATs,” says Kopp Weingarten. “We had a student who felt it might be difficult to maintain a high GPA at a highly competitive college where everyone was aiming for ‘A’ grades. He chose to attend a college where he felt he could keep his GPA high due to the lower competition at the school. Due to the fact that he was at the top of their admit pile, he received a huge scholarship and only paid about $10,000 a year for a private college. It worked out for him because he graduated with a near-perfect GPA and was accepted into medical school. He then had the money he saved to put toward paying for medical school.”
Think Carefully About College Selectivity
The main drawback of graduating from a less selective college is brand recognition. However, there are other things to think about, such as whether your child actually ends up graduating. Plus, if your child plans to go to graduate school, nobody cares where he or she goes for an undergraduate education.
Colleges with higher selectivity are also much more likely to graduate students than those with lower selectivity. However, once your child does graduate, there’s little difference in life outcomes, as the Stanford study suggests.
“Sometimes, the most highly selective schools can open the door for a candidate (job or graduate school). But what really matters is how well the student performs at the school they are at. The school doesn’t make the student successful — it’s up to the student to do that on their own,” says Kopp Weingarten.
Tip: Check the financial solvency of institutions your child is interested in (particularly those small private colleges that were already in trouble before the pandemic). Some have already closed. Attending a lower selectivity public school is less of a risk because if those institutions close, students will still be a part of the state system.