Tomorrow is D-day for seniors: Deciding which college to attend

Most metro Atlanta seniors must make their college choices tomorrow. (AP Images.)

Most metro Atlanta seniors must make their college choices tomorrow. (AP Images.)

My niece from New Jersey is on a plane now flying south for a one day visit to a college that accepted her into its prestigious pharmacy program. She had been planning on attending a college closer to home but had last-minute doubts and decided to make this trip since she had not seen this one last school.

The reason for her rushed visit: Like thousands of students in metro Atlanta, she has to commit tomorrow to the college of her choice.

I would love to see her come South, although I have no idea whether the college is a match for her.

I feel for my brother who was scurrying yesterday to find low-cost flights to Charlotte, but I think it’s important to see a college at least once. Two years ago, my oldest son spent the last weekend of April ricocheting from a college in New York to one in Ohio, neither of which he had visited before applying but both of which had a lot of the elements he wanted in a college — at least on paper.

Those 11th-hour visits were pivotal; he felt an instant bond with the campus in Ohio, and it proved an ideal fit for him.

Here is some sound advice from experts on making that decision. Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. Sue Wasiolek is dean of students at Duke. Anne Crossman is the author of “Study Smart, Study Less” (2011). The second edition of their book, “Getting the Best Out of College” (Random House), will be published soon.

By Tuesday, many high school seniors across the country must make the biggest decision of their life: which college to attend.

They (and their parents) will doubtless be wondering whether they will get their money’s worth and whether college is really worth it anymore, especially given the rising tuition and uncertain employment prospects.

After 50 years collectively working with undergraduates, we know too many students are failing to get their money’s worth, but not for the reasons you may think.

We believe the root problem is that many students make bad choices in college. Bad choices run the gamut from sins of commission (think pop-culture depictions of undergrad carousing) to sins of omission (such as avoiding inspiring classes for fear of too much coursework).

And note, we said in college, not of college.

Sure, choosing the right college is important. But we have known students who got a mediocre education at some of the most celebrated and prestigious schools in the world.

And we have known students who got a world-class education from an unheralded institution.

The former students coasted, thinking that the name on the diploma was all that mattered. The latter excelled, getting the best out of their college experience.

In our experience, students too often fail to be as intentional in the far more extensive — and far more consequential — set of choices they will make after they arrive on campus.

Should I take this course from this star professor even though he is infamous as a tough grader?

Should I go deeper in my studies or should I add another certificate credential to my résumé?

Should I attend that visiting lecture that sounds interesting but is totally unrelated to my coursework?

Should I pick a major that my parents think is more marketable but is of no interest to me?

A student determined to get his or her money’s worth will carefully weigh considerations such as:

● What kind of story or narrative am I telling with my transcript about my educational journey and how can I shape my course choices to influence conversations with future potential employers?

● How can I use my extracurriculars to develop myself as a person and build networks, and not merely to let off stress or have fun?

● How much time should I invest in the roommate relationship experience and how can I be proactive in our interactions early on to sidestep any sort of miscommunications that might lead to stressful confrontations later in the year?

● What relevance do my relationships back home have with my relationships on campus and how can I build both?

● Is it worth the effort to get to know a few professors before I graduate? (It is.) And how can I interact with them in a way that is professional and not annoying so that maybe I can earn a glowing recommendation down the road?

This is just a start, but too many students fail even to start well, let alone finish well.

We are confident that unless students take just as seriously the challenge of getting the best out of college as they took the challenge of getting into the best college, their tuition will not be worth the hefty price tag.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

18 comments Add your comment

Atlanta Mom

April 30th, 2012
11:48 am

A few years back I had to shell out $400 to fly my child to California for an April visit. Turns out to be the best $400 I ever spent. She hated the school. Having realized that, the next weekend she was on yet another plane, checking out another school. No way should a child attend a school she/he has not seen, in person.

Really amazed

April 30th, 2012
12:12 pm

Very important decision. We are up against this right now. Trying to figure out which colleges to apply to in the fall. Stay in-state? If not excepted to top school choice do we go to a lower choice school in GA just because of the HOPE or go out of state?


April 30th, 2012
12:29 pm

40+ years ago, Inever made a single college visit! My parents, both with bachelors degrees, never made any effort to take me.

Fast forward to my kids. We made visits to about 8 colleges each. They ended up spending the night at their top two choices, but each one seemed toknow, from the first moments on campus, what their first choice would be. Luckily each was accepted early decision.

My opinion is they should go to the place where they will FINISH!


April 30th, 2012
12:29 pm

“But we have known students who got a mediocre education at some of the most celebrated and prestigious schools in the world.

And we have known students who got a world-class education from an unheralded institution.”

I would highly recommend this thought to anyone selecting a college.

You get out of it what you put into it

I graduated from a marginal college with a “world class education”.

Glad I can afford to send my daughter to pvt school

April 30th, 2012
12:30 pm

8 years ago my Daughter informed us she had decided to go to UGA rather than Emory. We were broken hearted but said fine. She started as a junior thanks to AP and spent her 1st year in the bars of Athens getting a practical education. Got bored with drinking 2nd year & spent a semester abroad in Germany. Came back for a semester then did her senior year abroad at the University of Zurich. I have to say she got a very good, well rounded education.I saved about $300,000 but still wish she had gone to Emory.


April 30th, 2012
12:56 pm

I made two college visits. Loved the private college I visited, but couldn’t swing the private college cost. Felt so-so about the small public university I visited and ended up there the next fall. Once I was there, I LOVED it, academically and otherwise. Single best decision I ever made.

It’s definitely all about what you put into it.


April 30th, 2012
1:03 pm

The help-wanted ads should tell students what kind of education they need. If they want to be a social worker, that’s fine; just don’t expect to make a lot of money. If making money is their goal, they need an engineering degree. Apple’s highest paid employees are all engineers. And as Ms. Downey pointed out in another piece: If you can’t make correct change at a register without a computer’s help, you won’t become an engineer.


April 30th, 2012
1:27 pm

Good luck to them all. I’m sure it’s been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but I do want to remind families and students to seriously consider the choice to apply early decision (ED) without having the means to pay for all of the expenses. I know of at least one person who’s been admitted to a good school under ED and likely won’t be able to attend because the means ( credit score, loans, grants, etc) aren’t there. I hope they’ll be allowed to bow out of their commitment today. They’ll then be faced with scrambling to gain admission to one of the “lesser” local schools, where hopefully they’ll learn that they CAN get a world class education, if they but try.


April 30th, 2012
1:30 pm

@Jack – as for making change, went to the RenFest on Saturday and had to return $$ to the 2 lovely girls there, as neither could figure out the correct change. Even with a little prodding and encouragement they couldn’t understand where I was trying to lead them. Apparently, even the RenFest should be off limits if you can’t make change.

Maureen Downey

April 30th, 2012
1:35 pm

@school, One of the objections to the growing practice of binding early decisions is that the process favors the affluent as you are agreeing to go to the college without seeing your aid package, which may fall far short of your needs. So, counselors often recommend ED to students for whom money is a not a big factor.


April 30th, 2012
1:38 pm

College visits are absolutely essential. My daughter decided early in her search that she wanted a small liberal arts school somewhere outside the southeast. She was convinced that she’d love two schools and had her heart set on these schools — until we visited. It’s all about how the school “feels” to your child (and you). What “feels” right to one child doesn’t necessarily feel right to the next one. In my daughter’s case, she selected a small liberal arts school in Ohio which wasn’t on her initial list. I now have two children in college in Ohio. If you’re just starting this process, be sure to schedule time to visit the colleges.

Maureen Downey

April 30th, 2012
1:39 pm

@School, It was almost comical — except for the line behind me at customer service — when I tried to explain to three reps at a major home repair store that it was impossible for a $30 item to ring up $29 after a 20 percent off coupon was applied. The customer service people kept telling me it was sales tax that explained it all. I told them the sales tax in Georgia on a $24 sale was not $5.


April 30th, 2012
1:55 pm


April 30th, 2012
2:40 pm

“If making money is their goal, they need an engineering degree. Apple’s highest paid employees are all engineers.”

Engineering is a pretty middle-class profession, so if making money is your goal, I’d advise against it. Apple CEO Tim Cook has an engineering degree but was really only able to climb the corporate ladder because of his MBA. As for the rest of Apple’s highest paid employees, only two of its eight Senior VPs have engineering degrees.

Engineers serve their purpose, but they generally make lousy leaders and earn much, much less than those in medicine, finance, and Big Law.

College Mom

April 30th, 2012
3:05 pm

Love the beautiful picture of the snowy drill field at Virginia Tech that you included with this topic. My daughter visited twice, fell in love and is soon to wrap up year 2. It has turned out to be the perfect school for her.


April 30th, 2012
3:08 pm

Things may have changed, but when mylast one went ED to a very expensive private college, it was conditional upon offer of a sufficient financial aid package. That was 2003.

visit: I agree with you completely. We started the college selection process actively in 9th grade. Part of this was because I had done so much research on the college selection process for my PhD. My eldest daughter was quite well versed in things related to search and decision, but looked like an amateur when her little sis came along, because she had been through the process twice before and had visited about 20 colleges with her older sibs.

And sometimes the strangest things make a college “the one” for different students. For my son, he figured out he would fit in by looking at the cars in the parking lot! It was confirmed when we went onthe tour and he saw the sign “You MUST wear shoes in the Biology building!” and another that said, “Do NOT wear your boots on the roof of this building!” Oh, the stories I could tell about that school!

Atlanta Mom

April 30th, 2012
4:53 pm

Clark Howard will tell you that 5 years after graduation, it makes no difference where you went to college. What matters at that point is what you’ve done in your career. So………….I sure would think long and hard before my child aquired a lot of debt going to a “dream” school.


May 1st, 2012
8:48 am

That’s not completely true — there are certain career paths where the “name brand” “top” schools matter — for certain positions and appointments and jobs, the “brand” counts and 20+ years out of school, I am still asked where I went to school and where I was in my class for some things I have applied for…(hence, the recent scrutiny of my college transcript and the stark realization that I was not adequately prepared for college by my public school in NJ-I was a “nerd” who studied and did not party but I was behind the “8 ball”…). For the most part, what you do once you are there matters more than where you go. In our home, we have a rising senior (child #2) and the conversation is that $50k a year tuition may be worth it if the job is on Wall Street; it may not be worth it if the job is $30k a year in a classroom…. Child #1 is at a State School in NY as an engineering major at $25k per year…. so big difference (he would not have maintained Hope…. ).