Have you ever heard of an independent retention counselor? I know I haven’t.

But guess which is of these two things is more likely to happen – a) getting an acceptance letter from a college or b) graduating from the college in which you enroll?

The answer is “a”.  More than two-thirds of applications to college are accepted.  But less than 56% of students beginning at a four-year college graduate within (not 4, not 5) 6 years.  If you add in data from 2 year colleges, the numbers are even more dramatic.

It is easier to get in than it is to stay. So, are we focusing too much on the wrong topic?  Are we making poor decisions?  Why is it that almost half of our college choices go astray?

I started in the college admission profession in 1988.  Since then, I’ve seen a dramatic growth in the amount and quality of materials designed and distributed by colleges, the amount of qualified independent college counselors and the amount of college visitations families make during the college search process.  I (and everyone else) have seen the internet make information readily available in ways never before imagined.

So, you’d think we’d be doing alright.  But the statistics say otherwise.

One of my pet peeves is the ever popular quest to get into a reach school.  My philosophy is that you should find the schools that best meet your criteria for success; which colleges are most qualified to get you where you want to go?  However, a common goal among College and Graduate school candidates seems to be to ensure that the students is admitted (and then, attends) the most competitive school to which they can, regardless of fit.

Remember, however, that the reach school is – statistically – the school in which you are the weakest candidate.  You can certainly argue that the statistics aren’t an accurate reflection in your particular situation.  But – in general – many of us are putting quite a bit of effort into being admitted to the school where we are most likely to fail.

In practice, I have seen countless talented students go from a high school experience in which they were in the top 10% or 25% of their senior class to a college experience in which they were in the bottom 25% or 10% of their freshman class.  And that’s when I met them, as they applied to my less-well-kn0wn institution, with a Freshman GPA of 1.9 or 1.4 or some such.

The entire philosophy reminds me of the grand wedding reception that costs a fortune but leaves the newlyweds with months of Ramen Soup dinners and major debt right from the get-go.

Often, we treat college as a very different type of “purchase” from others.  But, in many ways, I find it instructive to make comparisons to other choices in life.

Would you mortgage the house and go into five (or six) figure debt to own the fancy 2 seat sports car if you have a family of 5, with a toddler still in a car seat?

Would you buy the John Deere riding lawn mower with the most bells and whistles, if your property is 40X120?

There are literally 4,000 colleges in this country.  Some are family vans – reliable, comfortable, able to move large groups to their destination.  Some are sports cars – dangerously fast and challenging, but super cool (AND super expensive).  Some are more economical and some have more horse power.  But they all have a purpose and they all have qualities that make them a strong choice for a segment of the student consumer audience.

I would ask of you that you test drive the ones you find as possibilities, and think carefully about what type of educational vehicle will best serve you to reach your ultimate destination.

I welcome your comments – always – and please feel free to email me at CCRMichael@gmail.com, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Us” and join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.

NOTES: Admission data is courtesy of the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s “State of College Admission 2010” Report, available at http://www.nacac.org. (http://www.nacacnet.org/PublicationsResources/Marketplace/research/Pages/StateofCollegeAdmission.aspx)
Persistence Data is courtesy of the College Board’s College Completion Agenda 2010 Progress Report.