All colleges are not created equal. Why “fit” is more important than ever

by Deb Coco on January 30, 2015

Our goal for every family with whom we work is to help them find colleges that are a great fit socially, academically and financially. While many think they understand the concept of social fit, they may not, so I thought I would take a few minutes to define it in more depth for you.

There are many different aspects of what goes into the social/cultural environment on a college campus. Some schools are dominated by a Division I sports culture; others are highly intellectual. And while it’s widely known that the general political and cultural climate on college campuses is quite liberal, the full depth of what that means may not be clear to many.

My middle daughter is a sophomore at a large East Coast University. She is very happy there and has found it to be a good match for her on all levels. However, we often laugh at some of what she is forced to participate in as a college co-ed in today’s world. A shining example came through recently when she forwarded a survey to me that the Office of Residence Life asked everyone to complete. It focused on “sexual orientation.” One of the many questions posed to her included “How would you describe your sexual identity?” And there were NINE possible answers (I still can’t figure out what at least six of them mean and neither can she). Beyond the standard “Asexual and Bisexual” we have a menu including, but not limited to “Queer, Questioning, Pansexual (?), and Fluid”… Really?!

Academic fit is easy to understand and as college admissions consultants, we strive to help students find it, but social fit is more ambiguous, and I find it easier to describe to a student by ascertaining what they WON’T want on a campus after I get to know them via the assessments and our 1:1 meetings. There is the simple explanation in describing a student body as either “conservative” or “liberal.” Parents who seek a conservative school for their child will find it more challenging to find a variety of options, with the exception of several dozen Christian colleges, and perhaps a couple dozen additional more “traditional” colleges. A quick Google search or this article will provide surprising information about Yale’s “Sex Week.” Big name schools aren’t the only places you’ll find this fascination with sex. At Allegheny College in conservative Western Pennsylvania, there was more than worship going on in the chapel. And many of these ideas are working their way into the actual curriculum. At Skidmore College, students can take a class called “Queer Theory.”

Are these type of courses truly worthy of academic credit? One could successfully argue that they are anti-intellectual, yet these examples are not isolated. But regardless of one’s political, cultural or religious beliefs, many parents, and some students, are simply unaware that these subjects and programs are offered at most colleges and universities throughout the country. And this brings me to one critical question that, as college admissions professionals, we constantly ask ourselves: How can we prepare families to ascertain an accurate view of the cultural and political climate on their college visits? More importantly, how can we help students understand their developing world view, and the type of college that will help them both support and challenge it so that an appropriate level of learning occurs?

The best way to fully understand these issues is for students to gain self awareness by asking themselves who they are and what they believe. We spend a good deal of time discussing these issues with them. But we also recommend that students spend considerable time researching schools carefully online. Students and parents should view the list of majors and courses offered. You can read guidebooks like the Princeton Review’s “Best 379 Colleges,” and follow the school’s Twitter feed, or “like” their Facebook page. Most importantly, you MUST VISIT the colleges to which you plan to apply, and do more than take a tour. Talk with students; sit in on a class; grab the school newspaper and read it on the drive home. Get the “vibe” of the student body and the campus in real time. Is the campus too intellectual for your student? Is it too focused on Division I sports? What kinds of extracurricular activities are taking place?

You are about to invest a small fortune so you must understand what the social/cultural climate will be like. If you take this advice before you submit applications, you have a much better chance of finding a place where your student fits in and feels they can take an active role in their education.

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