Monday, April 13, 2015

The Psychology of College Choice

As the school year winds down, high school seniors are going through an important rite of passage – what to do after high school? May 1st is the typical deadline for high school seniors to make their college decision, which makes the month of April a 30-day stretch of stress and anxiety in many households across the country. The high school graduation parties and summer family reunions will soon be here, and students need a story to tell when relatives ask, “so what are you going to do in the fall?” Sorting through the various aspects of a decision that has a significant effect on the trajectory of one's life can be overwhelming. Fully understanding the variables and the choices in play is a critical component to making the right decision that can help ease that natural anxiety.

Twenty years ago, I took a class called the Psychology of Student Success as part of my doctoral program. One of the topics covered was the psychology of college choice – why do students choose the colleges they do? The research was one of the most scattered, inconclusive bodies of knowledge I ever encountered in my studies. It uncovered variables such as familiarity (parents or sibling attended); academic program (when most students change their major multiple times); social reasons (high school friends are attending); and several other factors that held great influence over choosing a college but have little to do with the eventual satisfaction with the overall college experience.

At 18 years old, it seems unrealistic to think that we know exactly what we want in a college when the college experience is typically an unknown frontier in great contrast to high school. Sorting through the information is particularly hard when colleges seem to blend all too easily into an indistinguishable array of pretty buildings, smiling tour guides, and piles of information that can easily morph into a hodgepodge of ambiguity – leaving a prospective student to sort through marginal differences when trying to decide between colleges.

Our Vice President for Learning & Academic Affairs, Dr. Maryrose Eannace, always speaks about how a successful college decision is comprised of a triangle of choice in which all three points need to be satisfied – the head, the heart, and the wallet. If all three aren't accounted for, students run the risk of making a choice that may limit their immediate and long-term success. The head component is comprised of all the quantitative factors – location, enrollment size, academic program choices, campus life, housing options, and other specific things students might be looking for in a college. The heart component is comprised of the qualitative factors – emotional reaction to the idea of the college, the feeling when you walk around campus, first impressions when meeting faculty, staff, and students, walking through the buildings and visualizing spending the next few years there. And finally, the wallet component is as straight forward as can be – is the college affordable and how much debt may be a part of the future after graduation? Satisfying any two and not the third will create risk for success. If the wallet is satisfied (graduate with no debt) and the head is satisfied (all logical criteria are satisfied), but the heart isn't there (it just doesn't feel right and there isn't a connection), the likelihood of the student being engaged and committed is not good. Likewise, if the head and heart are satisfied but a student graduates with a mountain of crushing debt, it's not likely to have been worth it in the long run.

It's very difficult to tell an 18-year-old facing one of the most significant decisions in their life to this point that it will all work out eventually. Phrases like, “It's not so much where you start as it is where you finish” hold little weight when all that seems to matter at 18 is where you start. It might be difficult for 18-year-olds to tune out peer pressure, but in reality, the opinions of their high school friends probably won't matter as much a year from now. The important part is that they make that college choice and get themselves excited about wherever they go, because it's not so much the college that will make them successful as much as their own personal attitude and motivation to engage, connect, and finish that will.  

I haven't seen the most recent research, but I have my own theory about the psychology of student success – we all have the choice to make the best decision we can with the information we have and make the most of whatever experience those decisions provide us.  

If you have any comments or questions, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.