Beauty Is, Very Often, Only Skin Deep

By Deb Coco

What is it that makes a college or university desirable?  Is it rankings?  Graduate school placement? Athletic programs?  Depending on whom you ask, the answer can be quite different.  However, the one constant, year in and year out, is that a handful of “brand name schools” will be coveted by students and parents alike.  And we’re not just referring to the Ivy League, although they remain the most sought after acceptances.  Those schools, are however, also unattainable for most students, thus off the table. But I’m referring to the “sexy” schools – the ones students desire usually because of things they’ve heard from other students or parents or seen in an expensive, four-color brochure.

We will use Villanova as an example.  For the past decade, this University has seen a steady uptick in applicants and, as an admission’s coach, it’s the one school almost EVERY single one of my students desires.  What is interesting is the reason students give me when asked “why Villanova?”

Of course, this year it’s out of control – with Villanova’s NCAA Basketball Championship, their desirability skyrocketed and their applicant pool is expected to triple.  So an already extremely competitive school just shot off the charts for most “average” and many “above average” students.  But is that the reason to select a school?  I’ve inquired of all of my students who have “Nova” as their “top choice” why exactly IS it their #1 choice?  And I’ve been shocked by the answers, which vary from “I don’t know, I think the campus is really awesome” to “it’s a cool school” to “everyone I know is applying.”

And therein lies the caveat; a “skin deep” reply to an important question.  At The College Advisor of New York, we work 1:1 with students throughout the process, searching for the right fit school for each of them as individuals.  This means that the academic rigor must match the student’s abilities, the majors and schools must match the student’s goals, and the finances must match the family’s ability to pay.  So when we compile a list of schools for students, they mirror that student based on facts.

Brand name schools are the wild card in the process.  At some point as almost every student works with us, either that student or their parent will inquire “what about X school?  Shouldn’t we look there?” Boston College,  Villanova,  Hamilton, Wake Forest to name just a few; trendy schools with price tags to match.  Don’t get me wrong – these are all EXCELLENT schools – but they are no value and thus, most students and their families will go into debt figuring out how to swing a close to $300,000 college “experience.”  Often looking at those schools and deciding for oneself, is the best medicine, and then consider the facts; Those I’ve listed here (and about 50 more in the same category) now cost between $65,000 and $70,000 A YEAR.  Since I’ve been writing for The College Advisor, that figure just keeps creeping up.  And for what?  Are these colleges that much better?  Will attending one of them change the course of a student’s life?  By and large, the answer is a resounding “NO.”  What will change a student’s life is going to a school where they are able to study without the fear of impending debt, where they can find internships that will equip them for the job market upon graduation, and excel in their major so they stand out in the huge graduation pool.  Having a “cool” college sticker on your car is the equivalent of buying a BMW you know you can’t afford but feel you must have to drive by the neighbors; not a smart investment.

There are thousands of colleges and universities in this country and many of them are still a value; schools which still reward top students based on their academic merit (which NONE of the brand name schools do) and who seek those top students and reward them accordingly.  However, there will always be families who feel that it is “important” for their child to attend “that” school; ultimately it is a personal choice.  Our goal at The College Advisor of New York is to provide the facts and guide families through a complicated process.  At the end of the day, they must decide for themselves if gold really does glitter.