When did we start ‘shopping’ for college’?

When did college become a commodity? When did the decision of the best place to go translate into a monetary return on investment? When did we start shopping for college as we would for any other ‘big ticket’ consumer purchase?

I’m guessing it started when the average cost of college exceeded the average annual income of the majority of Americans.

Add to that a financial aid vocabulary that includes terms similar to those we use when we buy a car: ‘sticker price’ (tuition without room and board and books and lab fees) and ‘discounting’ (need-based institutional grant aid and discounts granted in an effort to increase the probability that particular students will choose to enroll).

Unfortunately price has become the determinant where ‘fit’ and values should predominate.

This week high school seniors will log on to websites to learn if they have been admitted to the college of their choice. For some, the financials will limit the choice, but for all it’s time to commit to a plan for the next two to four years.

In recent years there has been a trend to vocationalism in the choice of college and major. At the top schools business and economics departments are growing while humanities shrink. And why? Because parents and students are ‘buying in’ to a belief that the highest ranked schools with majors closely linked to employers are the best choice.

I disagree.

There are no guarantees. In a past life I would meet in large auditoriums where parents would arrive with the ‘ten questions you should ask when visiting a college campus’. One was always: How many students were employed at graduation? Does it matter? If your child does not have a job when he or she graduates and the other 99% of the Class of 2019 does, it doesn’t matter. Given the volatility of the job market and the ever changing complexion of entry level opportunities, can we really project out four years? That didn’t work out so well for the Class of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Here are three things I would consider above all in selecting a college today: faculty, location and internships.

You should select a place where the faculty is expert in their field, but also accessible. It’s important to spend time with professors outside of the classroom to truly optimize the academic experience. Too many students take a class and never meet with their teachers outside the classroom. For those of you in the ‘vocational view of higher ed camp’, faculty provide an underutilized professional network.

Next, location. I recommend a location near a large city, with a strong international presence for study abroad. If you are funding your education, you want to earn money during the summer months. In an urban area there will be multiple opportunities to acquire internships and work experience along with your class schedule during the academic year. Global experience is also critical. Students should study at least one semester outside the US, preferably in a country where english is not the spoken language.

Finally, internships. A few years ago employers visiting college campuses began to regard internship experience as a more important predictor of success than GPA. Internships are no longer an option. It’s equally important for a student to test their interests in the workplace as it is for an employer to preview the talent of the intern.

I haven’t mentioned major, because I think you should sample courses in your first year before you commit to an area of concentration. Interests change over time and students should explore a variety of academic areas.

Over the years I have asked hundreds of students why they selected where they attended college. Almost unanimously, the answer is about a ‘gut’ feel that this was a place were I ‘fit’ and could be successful.

You can’t shop for ‘fit’. Values are not for sale. Choice of college is about growth, transforming from the high school senior to a contributing member of a global community.

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