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What I Learned From My Son’s College Search (And I Work In Higher Ed)

A scene repeated itself several times last spring and summer. I’d stick my head in the door of my son’s bedroom and say “Hey, I thought of another college you should research!” Ben would grimace, then put his earbuds back in, blocking out the college search.

I understood his resistance. I’ve been working in higher ed marketing for 16 years, so I know the drill. Every school promises academic excellence, a caring campus community, great opportunities to learn outside the classroom, and career preparation. Some kids respond by applying to 10 (or 20!) schools, obsessing over essays and tests, and worrying too much about the response from their first-choice school.

Others, like Ben, are a bit cynical about the whole business. Given my profession, I winced to see Ben chuck promotional mail in the bin, ignore marketing emails, and depart from most college websites after a few clicks.

“Dad, all these colleges seem sort of the same,” Ben observed, and I knew he was sort of correct.

Yet experience told me that every school has its own strengths, values, and quirks—which are rarely apparent at first glance.

So how could I help him use the college search process to find a school he was enthusiastic to attend?

As Ben practiced for his driver’s license test, I asked him questions about the things colleges typically feature in their marketing:

  • Academics;
  • Student life;
  • Diversity;
  • Special opportunities (like study abroad and internships);
  • Cost

So what did I learn? Ben wants to be able to study topics that interest him deeply and make friends who share his passions. He’d like to get to know people different from himself and live somewhere different from where he grew up—preferably on a campus not dominated by Greek life and sports. He puts a high priority on being able to do research, and he is interested in international travel, too. Ben would also like to keep his student loan debt low.

My work experience was certainly an advantage, but going through this process as a parent definitely taught me some things.

5 Tips for the College Search

1. Let your student’s interests lead the college search.

Ben really wants to study mycology (the subset of biology focused on mushrooms and other fungi). No surprise there. He has enjoyed roaming the forest or loping around our backyard, in the rain, looking under rocks, since he was little. Trouble is, most universities don’t even offer a single undergraduate course in that field, let alone a major. Those that do are mostly large research universities where undergrads have little opportunity to do research. But we found an exception: the Plant and Fungal Biology major at University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.

2. Encourage your kid to contact professors.

As soon Ben found out about UW-L, he was stoked. I agreed to drive him from Indiana for a visit as long as we took COVID precautions and provided he would email a professor in advance. Ben arranged to visit a class and lab where he was able to ogle mushrooms collected from a nearby nature preserve and talk with the professor and students about their research. Professors are generally excited to correspond with prospective students who are curious about their programs (and if they’re not, that probably tells you all you need to know).

3. Make your visits DIY.

“Official” tours can be overlong and unhelpful. At a small, private college, the tour guide told us about a professor transporting a dead whale from the beach to a campus in a rental truck, but her tenuous grasp of scientific detail turned Ben off. At another college, we heard a way-too-detailed description of students’ role in campus governance. An otherwise good tour of a state school campus included an unnecessarily long discussion of parking. Tour guides sometimes get their facts jumbled, and they often spend time on topics that will bore (or annoy) your student.

A self-guided tour—combined with exploring the town and surrounding area—may be a better use of time.

We found we could use a campus map to find our way around and poke our heads in buildings of interest. In our experience, cafeterias, gyms, quads, and dorms have more similarities than differences. So why not focus your college search on unique features of the campus or town that hold special interest? In La Crosse, for example, we hiked on Grandad Bluff, where the views of the campus, town, and the mighty Mississippi were selling points.

4. Get real about cost.

I highly recommend the Net Price Calculators on college websites. Plug in information about your family and finances, and these handy apps will provide an estimate of what you will be asked to pay. Private colleges offer substantial “merit aid” and “need-based aid,” and few families pay full “sticker price.” But unless you know your “expected family contribution,” based on federal government standards, it is hard to tell if you’re getting especially good deal. For example, one private university offered Ben six figures in scholarship aid over four years. Sounds great, but the bottom line was roughly what a Net Price Calculator predicted, and the “deal” still required significant student loans.

5. Be open to surprises.

You may be focused on schools you already know about (elites, football powerhouses, alma maters), but there are many schools with great faculty and excellent resources you probably don’t know. This may be particularly important for those like Ben with highly specific academic or extracurricular interests. Broadening your search may also help you to discover more affordable options. My curiosity about public universities’ efforts to recruit promising out-of-state students led me to discover a school where Ben could study fungi. At UW-L, Ben qualified for the Midwest Student Exchange Program, which offers significant tuition discounts to high achievers from other states. (Read about similar programs for other regions here.)

Niche.com can help compare an unfamiliar school with one you know. (Niche pairs publicly available data on metrics like graduation rates and average student debt with reviews from students and alumni. It provides a helpful third-party view.) The goal of every college search should be for the students to enroll at schools where they will thrive and graduate—even if they choose a school that surprises you.

Ben has made his decision. For my wife and me, there’s relief that the process has concluded, and of course a little trepidation about the future. On a recent road trip to a state park, we listened as Ben talked about how much he values choice in educational settings, how fortunate he feels to have discovered a passion at an early age, and why he is drawn to mycology—because there is so much left to discover. Whatever the future holds, I’m convinced our search has served Ben well.

Jonathan Graham

Jonathan Graham is director of marketing and communications at Bethany Theological Seminary. He is the author of 30 plays and has published essays in Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Richmond, Indiana with his family.

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