The "best" college vs. the right college: how to make the right choice

By Judith Bickel

When our children are little, we eagerly ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Yet years later, when our kids are in high school and we should be asking the same question, we don’t. Instead, schools, parents, and society focus on getting them into the most prestigious four-year college possible. Is the "best" college in our children's best interest?

The best college is the one that matches the student's goals

While it’s true that many students won’t know their desired career, having this discussion as early as possible has many benefits. First and foremost, it helps you and your child understand where their interests truly lie. Do they enjoy working with computers or people? Do they envision being behind a desk or in the ocean looking at sea animals? If you have the conversation, it will redirect your focus from getting them into the “best” school possible to the right place for them.

For example, perhaps your kid loves cutting hair, as my son’s friend does. If so, barber school may be the best fit. Or maybe your daughter wants to get to know herself better by volunteering in a field that interests her. A gap year will allow her to do this. As you can see, having the “what do you want to be” conversation has the potential to put the brakes on the societal autopilot assumption that everyone should immediately go to a four-year college right after graduation.

Cost and compatibility trump rank

After the discussion is over, chances are a four-year college will still be the right path for your son or daughter. Unless money is no object, I would still argue that the focus should not be about getting into the “best” possible school. For your child's sake, you should work together to find the most cost-effective school that meets their interests, while encouraging them to get as much real-world experience as possible.

Take my friend’s daughter as an example, who graduated from Lafayette, a liberal arts college. She took interesting classes and gained lifelong friendships. But she left with so much student loan debt that it is restricting her choices in her twenties, such as travel, large purchases, being able to go to graduate school, and to save money. This is the time when she should be having fun and investing in her future, but going to the “best” school on her list left her without financial security as an adult.

The importance of real-life experience

In addition, while her classes were interesting, she didn’t gain any hands-on, real-life experience. This is not the school’s fault. They had internships available. It was just never emphasized that she should take advantage of them, not only to figure out what she liked to do, but, more importantly, what she didn’t like. As a young woman, she didn’t realize the value of professional connections or of having real work experience, especially in this increasingly competitive job market.

Avoid debt

What could she have done differently? To save money, she could have chosen a similar school — a liberal arts college in a bucolic setting — but one that offered her merit aid. Or, she could have gone to community college for a year or two and then transferred to Lafayette. If she did this, she would not be using half her paycheck to pay off loans.

How can one grasp the implications of a 20-year loan when they haven't even been alive for that long?

How can one grasp the implications of a 20-year loan when they haven't even been alive for that long? Once the college application process starts, there is never a time-out to breathe and assess; everyone is in a frantic race to prepare for APs and SATs and ACTs and to get the applications and essays out and to volunteer and do extracurricular activities, all with the singular goal of getting into the “best” school. This is why the conversation about students’ interests, real-world experience, and post-grad finances has to start way before the mania descends — at home and in schools.

Name recognition may not matter

Since Lafayette, my friend’s daughter has gone on to become a high school teacher through her state’s teaching fellowship program. While her degree helped her get the fellowship and the thought-provoking classes allowed her to be an effective, empathetic teacher, the name recognition of the school didn’t matter, at least in her field. Even if name recognition was important, she was left with so much debt that graduate school could not have been an immediate option.

As a high school teacher, she is now able to mentor her students through their high school application process. What she tells them time and again is just because you can get into the “best” school doesn’t necessarily mean you should go there. The decision, as she found out firsthand, is much more complex than that.

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About the author

JudithJudith, and her high school sweetheart husband David, are parents to two sons. She has survived — barely — the college application process and is resting for about 43 minutes before having to do it all again. In the meantime, she can be found blogging at