Teens are complicated. So are colleges. So the process of helping a teen select the right college(s) for them is not an easy process. (That’s an understatement and a half.) A new book, Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life by Michael Horn and Bob Moesta, helps both parents and kids view the process as an opportunity to learn to make good decisions. Doing so means really understanding underlying goals and motivations. Once students and parents know that, the rankings become far less important and the choices become both clearer and the outcomes are more positive.
Author Michael Horn answers some questions about Choosing College, the extensive research that went into it and some ways that parents and kids can navigate the process in a more effective ways.
Between Us Parents (BUP): You’ve written a lot about education in the past – what prompted to you to write about choosing college? And why now?
Michael Horn (MH): Why people go to school–what their true causal set of reasons for attending–is something we’ve long wondered about, because if we knew the answer, then we could help students and parents make far better decisions and we could help schools design far better experiences.
We had the suspicion that categorizing the world of choices available to students by the type of school–Ivy League school, community college, state university, and so on–wasn’t the right way to view the world, but we really didn’t know the answer to our fundamental question. Finally a few years ago we received the funding at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a non-profit think tank, to do the fundamental research, and the results were revealing. The reasons students choose college were eye-popping, and their stories were incredibly compelling.
We realized there was a book to be written to help students, parents, and schools at a time when the stakes around college and the costs of making a mistake have never been higher.
BUP: You strongly urge students to understand why they are pursuing higher education, a key part of the process is often overlooked. Could you please explain how putting time into that first part of the process act as a game changer?
MH: In the course of our research we discovered that there are five primary reasons why students choose the school they attend. Students enroll to get into their best school, do what’s expected of them, get away, step it up, or extend themselves. Understanding which one of these best fits you is incredibly important because it completely changes what success looks like for you.
If a student is going to college to get away from their hometown, the criteria for their decision is dramatically different from someone who is seeking to improve their skill-set for a chosen profession. In the case of the former, for example, they should be looking for something that gets them away but doesn’t commit them to something that is costly and time-consuming when they don’t have a clear passion for the educational experience and journey itself.
By neglecting to ask why they are going, all too often students default to just using the traditional rankings to guide their decision.
But those rankings don’t use criteria built around what success looks like for an individual student–and you can only understand the answer to that question by starting with an answer to why you’re going in the first place.
That serious self-reflection is probably something missing from our society more generally, but here’s an opportunity to use it to improve your choices and decision-making process in concrete ways.
BUP: In Part II of the book, you help parents and students talk with each other and not past each other. How important is it to have that common terminology and language? Do you have any tips for how parents can communicate effectively with their kids about the college search?
MH: Every parent knows the feeling. You feel like you can see the larger picture, you have a sense for your child and what would be good for them, but your child has just tuned you out. You talk and they can’t believe how little you understand what they are feeling and what they are going through. They just don’t want to hear it.
The book will be really helpful to parents because it gives them the code for how their children are talking about and viewing the choices around college. We captured the real language of students across our more than 30,000 data points–and that language is remarkably similar from person to person who has roughly the same why for going.
Being able to have a common language is critical so two sides in any situation–not just parents and students–can stop talking past one another and frame a challenge in the same way to reach a decision–especially one that may be counterintuitive–on how to make progress.
The book is full of advice for parents, but one big thing I’d say is to remember that your job isn’t to solve your child’s problems or figure it out for her. That struggling moment your child is going through is the seed of innovation. Letting your child struggle can be a great thing because it offers a teachable moment. This can help your child figure out what to do, what tradeoffs she is willing to make, and what to prioritize to set her on a course for life success.
The real problem comes if you swoop in help your child avoid the struggle by reducing the friction before she has wrestled with the full dimension of it. Instead, the key is to coach her through it. Now, I’ll acknowledge that’s easier said than done–I’m constantly working on doing this right with my own children–but it’s an important starting point.
BUP: I love what you say about only applying to schools that the student would be excited to attend. How can parents help shift the perception of a “safety school” which may have a negative connotation to “a great option for me to which I am likely to be admitted”?
MH: And I love the way you’ve phrased this. It isn’t that you should only apply to your one dream school. It’s that you should figure out what is it about the schools that excite you that is drawing them to you–and how can you use that information to broaden the set of schools and experiences that would be the right fit for you at this time in your life.
Don’t just broaden your options–broaden your good options.
Options that are a crummy fit for you aren’t worth it because if you attend, there’s a high likelihood you’ll be unhappy at best and transfer or even drop out with a lot of debt that’s hard to pay back at worst.
I think the big idea is that we need to spend a lot more time broadening students’ options in line with what success looks like for them than we have traditionally and get out of the rat race mentality that there is a pecking order of schools that will somehow determine the rest of your life prospects.
BUP: Speaking of parents, if you could wave a magic wand and have parents stop doing 3 things, what would they be?
MH: 1) Don’t try to “solve” your child’s problems.
2) Don’t put more pressure on your children to get into the “best” school they can. There is already enough pressure, and there are more pathways to success than just through a few brand-name schools.
3) Don’t force your child to go to college right away if they aren’t excited about it or they aren’t ready for the experience.
You Might Also Like: 8 reasons the college search process can be enjoyable (really!)
Prior Post: The first of the lasts
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