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If You Have Time for Just Two Myths, Here They Are
Myth 1: It is a seller's market in which colleges have all the control.
Reality: It is a buyer's market where you have many good choices.
A few brand-name schools can call all their own shots. They get more unsolicited applications than they can even read and basically pick the class they want regardless of the price they charge (which is usually extraordinarily high and far more than needed to educate you). These schools have effectively created the expectation that it is a seller's market. Not true. There are more than three thousand colleges and universities in the United States. Almost all of them must recruit a substantial number of new students every year. Students come in all shapes and sizes: adult, transfer, part-time, non-credit, and so on. By far the largest subset, and the most desired one, is the eighteen-year-old high school graduate.
Most colleges, whatever else they do, offer undergraduate degree programs. Most colleges have designed their programs for this group. Enrolling a full-time, first-time freshman means having a student who can fit comfortably into the school's model of living and learning, a student for whom few exceptions have to be made, someone who will rent a room and eat the food, who will play on the team or in the band, who will become a successful graduate and lifelong supporter, and from whom, frankly, the most cumulative tuition and fees will be collected.
Graduate students bring prestige to the faculty, but they require close supervision and expensive instruction, research, and library costs. They are often paid modestly to help teach undergrads. They do not produce substantial revenue for an institution. Part-time and adult students almost always pay greatly reduced tuition and fees in order to make it affordable for them to attend. With families and jobs that take up most of their energy, they add very little to the out-of-class life of the campus.
In summary, eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds pay (or someone pays for them) most of the bills that allow a college to operate and provide most of the vitality that animates and defines the college's culture. Without students, colleges would close. Yet colleges too often act as if they don't understand this simple reality, focusing more attention on the needs of others (e.g., faculty, alumni, and donors). The myth that you as students need colleges more than they need you allows colleges to continue to give you too little attention. If you believe the myth, you are inhibited from acting like a valued customer with questions and expectations.
Remember above all else throughout the college decision-making process that you are a valuable commodity and that it is OK to make schools work to recruit you. When you find a college that acts like it cares, it probably does! Your college experience and the rest of your life will be the better for choosing such a place.
Myth 2: Success in life depends on which college you choose.
Reality: Success in life depends not on which college you go to, but whether you graduate from college!
University officials proudly report that college graduates earn much more money than high school graduates do, and that college graduates have received the tools needed to live a more enriched life. But colleges are less talkative about the fact that half of students who enroll in college don't finish. For students who don't graduate, going to college can be a waste of time and money, maybe even worse than not going at all.
The notion that you must attend one of the brand-name schools to be successful is a function of those schools' excellent reputations and very welloiled public relations departments. It is more important to choose a college you can enjoy and graduate from successfully than to pick one that, although it has a great reputation, might be a place where you could struggle, be unhappy, run up a large debt, and worst of all, leave without a degree.
You will hear little discussion of the fact that so many entering students never graduate. It is a sad commentary that many colleges have little concern for ensuring that students learn and achieve their goals. Colleges will place blame on high schools for weak preparation or point fingers at students' lack of motivation rather than working to see what they can do to help their students be more successful. A prepared, motivated student will be successful anywhere. Colleges take credit for the achievements of those students even though they probably had little to do with that success. However, many colleges are reluctant to share the blame for students' failures.
The key to good decision making in selecting a college is to search for one that consistently works to make your success its priority. That approach will lead to a true win-win situation for the school and the student. Yet, the college experience is about more than just preparing for life after graduation. The college years are a vital, important part of life itself. To that end, it is important to choose a location and an atmosphere that you enjoy, because where you are happy, you will most likely be more successful in and out of class.
The quality of your fellow classmates and the campus culture they help to create are also vital determinants of likely success. Good students can be role models and mentors as well as lifelong friends and colleagues. This is one area where the high reputation schools may have a legitimate claim to distinction. Their ability to attract many extraordinarily capable students provides a dynamic academic environment. Inevitably, there is also considerable competition on these campuses for grades and leadership opportunities. In choosing a campus, be sure you have identified at least a critical mass of able students who set a quality tone but without so many as to block your path to getting involved and leading on campus. Involved leaders tend to be successful-and graduate.