A guest blog from one of our favorite people

by Ken Anselment on May 21, 2013

Marty O’Connell is a force of nature… and a college search Zenmaster. As the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, she has been serving up anecdotes as antidotes to the high-stakes, high-pressure, win-at-all-costs college admission game that repeats itself year after year. We have the good fortune this week of traveling with Marty O’Connell and nearly all of our fellow Colleges That Change Lives as we make our way up the East Coast this week at a series of information nights. We will do the same in August all over the country. (For locations and dates, visit CTCL.org.)

In the meantime, we’d like to share Marty’s perspective, in her own words, about how to approach the college search. It’s a perspective she recently shared with our friends in the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling, and one that we invited her to share with you. (Thanks Marty! ihrtluhc)

We trust you will find it equal part wise, calming, and invigorating. You may even find some surprises in it.

If I made a bumper sticker for how to approach the college search process it would read: College: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination. Too often, students will race through their secondary school years, compiling tallies of courses and AP credits completed, joining activities to lengthen their resume, taking and retaking SAT and ACT tests and always keeping one eye on the prize of the college destination. These same students arrive at college only to repeat this process with a goal of admission to graduate and professional school or the perfect first job. We live in a goal-focused society where becoming a mindful, life-long learner, instead of an educational trophy hunter is not an easily achieved state of mind. If I had the magic wand for education, my wish would be that students might approach the college search, as well as their day-to-day learning, with a greater appreciation for the long view: it is not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey to get there!

Too often the college search begins with a flawed approach by using ranking lists that tout the entering class statistics, rather than focusing on what happens during the four years students are enrolled. The late author Loren Pope, of Looking Beyond the Ivy League and Colleges That Change Lives, often known as the “Ralph Nader” of college admissions, said that choosing colleges based on the entering statistics of the freshmen class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the ER—it’s the treatment that really matters; in the case of college, it’s what happens between the first year and graduation. Researching colleges based on student outcomes will highlight many colleges that outperform the Ivies and Name Brands but don’t have the benefit of name recognition. The research from the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium on the Undergraduate Origins of Ph.Ds finds lesser known colleges listed in the top ten in various categories of producers of future Ph.Ds, often ahead of the usual suspects.

If you had to choose a spouse or partner for life, would you like to use a publication ranking them by income, IQ scores, and reputation as reported by others who have never met the person? As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars; the college search requires a more thoughtful, personal and time consuming approach. It can’t be reduced to rankings with numerical values when it requires starting with who the individual student is and why they are going to college, their needs and desires, and learning styles and interests. This self inventory is the start for finding colleges that “fit” for the individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the “Top 20” on the USNWR and other rankings lists have any value. These ranking guides sell big, but their value (or lack of it) in the college search process can certainly be diminished if students, parents and counselors go after fit, rather than name recognition. Students and their anxious, hovering parents would do well to add some lesser-known colleges to their search process, where the chance for gaining admission is greater and the outcomes the same or better than those colleges admitting a fraction of applicants.

NSSE: The National Survey of Student Engagement is a wonderful resource for gathering information about college outcomes and provides a list of the right questions to ask during the college search. Most importantly, how quickly students engage in the academic and co-curricular life of the campus will make the difference, not only in their early success as an undergraduate, but in on-time degree completion and in reaching their goals beyond college.

The current weakened state of the economy and worry over the cost of attending a four-year college has made the option of attending community college and transferring to complete the bachelor degree a very appealing one. It can be a positive experience if a student chooses it because it is a good fit for them and not just because it will save them money. Community colleges have changed dramatically since their rapid growth in the 1960s, when because of their “open admissions” policies, they were too often erroneously labeled as options only for those with no other college choice. This is a much different case today when community colleges attract top high school students with honors programs that rival those at competitive four-year colleges. If students apply the same investigative process in considering a community college as they do with four-year colleges: visiting campus, sitting in on classes, eating a meal, meeting students and professors, they are less likely to feel like they “settled” instead of chose…

Perhaps the Irish poet Yeats had a better idea for that bumper sticker with this quote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”…

[So, too, we will add, should be your college search.]

 Martha “Marty” O’Connell’s 35-year college admissions career includes posts at large and small colleges, beginning with Rutgers University in New Jersey and ending with McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. In July 2006 she began her role as Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, Inc., which has a mission to advance and support a student-centered college search process that looks beyond the college rankings industry.

(For the record, we think she is awesome.)

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