Choosing a College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter 12: Your Choice

Income and Career Prospects
The Unthinkable
Financial Aid
A Choice of Futures

After months of waiting and wondering about which college will accept you, the time finally comes when the situation is reversed. After you receive their decisions-and chances are there will be more than one acceptance-you must then decide which of the colleges’ admissions offers you will choose to accept.

An acceptance letter, even from a prestigious institution, is not a trophy but a cross-roads. However much your friends, relatives, and classmates may be impressed by one acceptance letter and unimpressed by others, it is you who will be living with the consequences of your choice, for years-and decades-to come. If you are accepted by Columbia University and by Davidson College, everyone will congratulate you on the first but many may never have heard of the second. However, at that point, if you have done your homework, you will know far more about both institutions than anyone around you. That knowledge—of the schools and of yourself—should decide for you, not the crowd’s reaction.

Income and Career Prospects

What if the graduates of Columbia earn a higher income than the graduates of Davidson? That doesn’t mean that you are likely to earn a higher income by going to Columbia. My college graduating class undoubtedly has a high average income; it included a Rockefeller and the Agha Khan, among others from wealthy families. But none of that ever added a dime to my income.

Averages are treacherous. Joining a basketball team will not make you any taller, even though the average basketball player is much taller than most people. The average income of its graduates is similarly a very shaky basis for choosing a college.

It would take a complicated analysis-with a very uncertain outcome-to determine how much a given college itself adds to your future income prospects. The field that you major in probably has a much bigger effect. A given individual is unlikely to earn as high an income with a Harvard degree in sociology as with a Georgia Tech degree in engineering.

If your interest is not so much in your prospects immediately after college, but rather in your career after finishing graduate school or medical or law school, then there is even less reason to select a big-name undergraduate institution, as such. The quality and renown of your postgraduate training will undoubtedly have a very real influence on your career prospects-but at that point no one will care where you went to college before you received your M.B.A. from Wharton, your Ph.D. from Stanford, or your M.D. from Johns Hopkins. Perhaps you are concerned about getting into such postgraduate programs and think that a big-name college will help your chances there. But the people who run the leading graduate and professional institutions are unlikely to be dazzled by big names. They know from long personal experience which colleges’ students actually perform well, regardless of whether or not those colleges are known to the general public. It was the deans of law schools who ranked Davidson College ahead of most Ivy League schools for the calibre of its students’ performances in law school. It was the deans of engineering schools who ranked the students from Rose-Hulman Institute ahead of those from Princeton.

The Unthinkable

What if the unthinkable happens and you are not admitted to any of the colleges you applied to? This is highly unlikely, unless you made some extremely ill-advised choices. Nevertheless, once it has happened, for whatever reason, what do you do?

Most selective colleges notify you of their decision by mid April and require you to notify them of your decision by the beginning of May. There are still some respectable institutions to which you can apply by June 1[st] or later, and still others with “rolling” admissions policies, to which you can apply as long as they have spaces. Among these late-application possibilities are a number of state universities, including California’s UC Riverside, Michigan State, Purdue, the University of Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa; Clemson, Auburn, Colorado State, and others. There are also a number of late-application private institutions, such as Marquette University, Temple University, Wabash College, and Loyola Marymount University. If you are confident that academic credentials will get you in someplace that suits you better next year, perhaps it is better to wait, especially if your problem this year was from applying to too few or too competitive a set of colleges.

If you have not been rejected outright by the college to which you applied, but have been put on the waiting list, then you may need to apply elsewhere to have a fall-back possibility, while sweating out whether you will ultimately be admitted to your preferred college. One of the real dangers in this situation is psychological. If you take being wait-listed personally, you may build up resentments and doubts that may affect your judgement if and when you are finally admitted from the waiting list. Given the chancy nature of the ~admissions game, there is probably no basis for resentments and doubts- certainly not enough to make it sensible to turn down the admissions offer when it comes.

If the college where you were wait-listed was your preferred choice before, and there is no new information about it, then it should still be your preferred choice. Once you are there, you will be like any other student, including those who received early acceptance. And after you have graduated, being wait-listed will be one of the things you can laugh about.

Financial Aid

Money may be a very legitimate concern when it comes to financing your college education, so it is well worthwhile to scrutinize the financial aid offers that come from different colleges. There is no way you can do your best academically if you are going to be constantly hard-pressed to make ends meet, or have to work long hours when you should be studying. When comparing the financial situation as between two colleges, include differences in costs (including travel costs) as well as differences in financial aid.

The financial differences that matter most are those that affect your education while in college. The difference between a campus job and a loan makes a difference in your education. The difference between a loan and a grant does not. Obviously loans will mean that you graduate in debt but being in debt will not affect your life until after graduation-and probably not in a major way even then. The difference between a loan and a grant should not be enough to determine your choice if there is a real difference between colleges.

A Choice of Futures

While the admissions process is a game, it is very important to be clear in your own mind as to what “winning” that game means. Some regard acceptance by the most exclusive colleges as “winning.” In reality, winning is getting into the college that best matches your particular needs and capabilities. If you succeed in getting into a college whose pace is beyond yours, that can mean losing in a big way. Your decision at the cross-roads is not about right now, but about years from now. This applies to every aspect of the decision, from finances to friendship. It may be tempting to go to a college where your friends are going, but the long-run consequences have to be kept in mind. In the short run, it will be good to know someone the first day you step on a college campus, but chances are you are going to make new friends there anyway. Moreover, these are years when people grow personally and intellectually, by great amounts and in very different directions. That is part of why you go to college. It can be more than ironic to realize in your sophomore or junior year that you chose the wrong college because of someone you seldom spend time with any more.

These are all downside risks. But there are many up sides when you make the right choice. The right college can mean new horizons and a whole new life. Make that choice, not just for the next year or even the next four years, but for the best new life you can find.

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Updated: 11 June 1996