Evaluating The Goodness of Fit For Students Planning to Go to College | Jim Wickenden | 4 Min Read

May 23, 2023

On Sunday, April 2, 2023, I read an interesting and provocative article by Frank Bruni that was published in the New York Times.  The title of the article was “There’s Only One College Rankings List that Matters.”  Having worked as the Dean of Admission from 1978 to 1983 at Princeton University, and having evaluated the credentials of literally thousands of applicants, I was intrigued by what Mr. Bruni had to say.  In brief, I’ll quote five of the major points that he made.  They are:

  • For almost a decade now, I’ve been writing and railing against the way in which so many Americans, especially affluent ones, approach the process of applying to colleges, which at some point over the past quarter century devolved into a scholastic version of “The Hunger Games.”  I’ve lamented its toll on mental health.  I’ve rued its emphasis on credentials over character and on a rigid, cautious script of education over an organic plot of genuine discovery. I’ve bemoaned its conflation of brand with worth.
  • Over recent decades, tuition at many public and private schools has risen much faster than inflation in general, to heights that have led millions of students to take on a magnitude of debt that dogs them and dictates their job decisions deep into their post-graduate lives. Still, other students wonder whether college is even worth it in the end.  The sticker price for tuition, room, board, and required fees at some private schools is now over $80,000 per year (and over $90,000 at USC).
  • Where to attend college is a big decision, if not nearly as consequential as many young people believe, because college is a serious commitment of time and money.  It should not be outsourced to U.S. News, Forbes or any other organization spitting out a one-size fits all hierarchy with a debatable methodology dictated by nameless, faceless number crunchers.
  • Higher education is a marketplace.  And many of its consumers care more about how they can outwardly trade on their college degree than about how it will inwardly transform them.
  • I was struck by a sense of possibility — by how much is out there and how frequently that’s overlooked.  The madness of the admission process and students’ sense of desperation would be lessened greatly if they simply weren’t applying to so many more schools than their predecessors did.

Rather than simply criticizing a flawed system, Mr. Bruni then recommended that college applicants give serious consideration to doing research on three criteria that in his words would be “What’s the Best College for you?”  He identified three following three criteria:

  1. High earnings
  2. High earnings and Low Net Price
  3. High earnings + low net prince + less selective

To his credit, Mr. Bruni also presented 10 institutions of higher education that rank order each of the aforementioned criteria.  Implicit in that, however, this would require each college applicant to do a great deal of research while also doing what was necessary to perform at a high level in the schools they attend.  If the secondary school seniors have access to college counselors who are not overwhelmed with their respective caseloads, they could help each senior with the research related to Mr. Bruni’s criteria.

I, however, would like to build on what is currently available, what Mr. Bruni recommends, and then require each senior to rate the following criteria on a one to five scale, with one being least important and five being most important.  Each student would have a maximum of 75 points to use, but would not be required to use all of them.

Thus, the criteria that each college applicant would be asked to evaluate would be as follows:

  1. The reputation of the institution of higher education;
  2. The reputation of the academic department one is considering;
  3. The reputation of creating a safe environment for undergraduates;
  4. Availability of a Career Counseling program; 
  5. Quality of facilities to be used by undergraduates;
  6. Affordability;
  7. Access to tenured faculty members who teach undergraduates;
  8. Quality of residential facilities for undergraduates;
  9. Diversity of the student body;
  10. Importance of  location — urban vs suburban; 
  11. Importance of social facilities — sororities & fraternities;
  12. Importance of religious facilities related to that aspect of one’s life:
  13. The loyalty of alumni as assessed by the percentage who contribute to annual giving;
  14. Availability of mental health and counseling services;
  15. Accessibility of extracurricular programs:
  • Music
  • Drama
  • Intercollegiate Sports
  • Community Service

The purpose of this bureaucratic step in the college counseling process would be to encourage the candidates to think broadly about what is most important to them, to give parents an opportunity to discuss this issue with their son or daughter, and to give those in college counseling data that would ideally be used for making recommendations about the “best fits” for those seeking their next set in their academic, social, and moral development.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Jim Wickenden for Intrepid Ed News.

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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