Updated: Sep 17
By Jeff Hulett, February 3, 2021
College can be an investment in your future career. College can be a lot of fun! Sadly, increasingly for some, college can devolve as a "Life Anchor" for those saddled with debt and limited resources to repay. This article helps you make the high impact college choice.
We will discuss key college choice challenges and considerations. This includes key elements, questions, and decision weights to consider when making a college choice. Finally, we present college choice architecture software tools. These are practical tools to help you make a good choice.
This article is presented with the following sections:
I am very curious about how we choose and how we learn. My curiosity naturally brings me to this article topic. Next, is a list of people and practical experiences influencing my thinking on the topic:
First and foremost, my wife and four kids. My wife and I (mostly my wife) educated our 4 kids through college. I was fortunate to marry a professional educator.
Leading a large advisory firm's recruiting effort at a U.S. university.
Member and past chair of a college advisory board, my roles include raising scholarship funding, curriculum consulting, and student mentorship.
Guest lecturing in college classes for Banking and Artificial Intelligence related topics.
I have been informed by many believable thinkers in the education and choice space. This includes Bryan Caplan, N.N. Taleb, Jackson Toby, Mitch Daniels, The Economist, Jonathan Last, Michael Spence, Michelle Singletary, Scott Galloway, Sal Kahn, Malcom Gladwell, Barry Schwartz, Daniel Kahneman, and many others.
This article is focused on the college decision. That is, how do you narrow your college options? How do you make the decision? The article topic focus occurs because "choice" is tough for many people. Do not feel bad if you ever struggle with making decisions, the human brain is not genetically designed for the volume of choice options we have today. Psychologist and Choice Architecture researcher Barry Schwartz makes an important observation:
“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
College Choice considerations
Before we get into the college "Choice Architecture," I did want to spend a little time on my overall approach to college, deciding which colleges to consider, the value of college, and the like. This will help add context to the choice architecture. College provides a number of student growth opportunities. These include: 1) improving the student’s ability to learn, 2) improving socialization, 3) providing a network for future employment, and, 4) in my view the most important outcome, is a strong recruiting signal for future employers. You may have other objectives as well. My primary belief is that, regardless of your objectives, you can meet them in a way that minimizes long term objective costs. Also, this article is generally geared toward those that will work in a field that values a college education.
In the remainder of this section, I describe my perspective on the college decision. This is based on the research and experiences described in the background section. I have noticed, many adults are anchored in their previous experiences with higher education. That is, their methods and outcomes (good or bad) will anchor their college decision starting point. Psychological anchors can be dangerous, especially with a big and somewhat emotional decision as college. I ask you, gentle reader, to be open minded as your beliefs may be challenged. An old saying is:
“I suppose it is human nature to get anchored in our beliefs. The key is knowing when to drop anchor and sail away.”
As I wrote in The Stoic's Arbitrage, we have a tremendous opportunity to waste money on college. Depending on your college choices, the estimated waste could be quite high. You could forgo over $4 million for the student's retirement! Please note, this has nothing to do with whether you have family money for college, this has to do with the appropriate use of family money. Significantly, this estimate is made before the impact of student loans. I give a single example by comparing Virginia Tech to Drexel. From this Big 4 recruiter's experience standpoint, they are both highly capable schools. The issue is, as a private school, Drexel is much more expensive. To be clear, Drexel is a fine school, I could have used many other examples.
I simply cannot think of a good reason to pay more money for the same value. My Big 4 recruiting experience will help clarify my reasoning. Think of the Big 4 firms’ recruiting approach as a representative model for all industry recruiting. The Big 4 recruits highly capable college graduates, at scale, and across almost all business, STEM, and related disciplines. Here is the thing. The Big 4 recruits broadly, from big schools and small schools, public schools and private schools.
The Big 4 has figured out, 1) it is the individual student that matters, more so than the individual school and 2) no one school has a monopoly on high quality students. Said another way, all schools have a subset of good students, the hard part is identifying and recruiting them.
So the Big 4’s recruiting approach is to target colleges broadly and target high-quality students narrowly. In the case of the Drexel / Virginia Tech example, the Big 4 have a long history of recruiting excellent students from both schools. From this recruiter’s standpoint, other than price, there is no difference between the schools.
If you are choosing a school, my advice is:
Do not get too hung up on the college’s brand name,
Pick a state public school (or a school with the equivalent of or lower than in-state tuition (1) ), and
Pick a school you are committed to getting good grades.
College grades are an important recruiting signal suggesting readiness for the working world. Think of grades as the “3Cs” recruiting signal. That is, your grades signal recruiters the trinity of:
intellectual Competence → ability and willingness to learn
Conscientiousness → hard worker
Collaborativeness → team player
Said another way, if you are not ready to commit to getting good grades, do not waste your money. Just wait until you are ready! By the way, if you are not ready for a four-year college, I am a big fan of the community college system. Done appropriately, it can be a lower-cost way to build study habits and good grades, as preparation to transfer to an undergraduate institution. Also, think of community college participation as a low-cost way to “test the waters” and confirm college readiness. Also, as a former Big 4 recruiter, we generally considered students that met recruiting criteria AND came via a community college path as having a positive, differentiated resilience signal. Please see our article Diamonds In The Rough - A perspective on making high-impact college hires for more information.
College Choice architecture background
Now, let's jump right into the "how." That is, how do we make a good college choice? At this point in the process, you may be:
Years out from making a college choice and are in the early stages of getting organized and collecting information.
Alternatively, you may be less than a year from making a college choice and are narrowing your options to a handful of colleges. In this case, you are getting serious about making some tough college choices.
(By the way, the "you" in this article is typically the high school student and their parents or caregiver.)
This choice architecture will work for college-bound people regardless of your ability to pay for college. That is, this will help regardless of whether 1) you are lucky to have access to plenty of capital so you may choose any college, or 2) you have a significant budget constraint and less college choice. Ironically, a budget constraint is actually good. It makes the college choice easier because it narrows the choice field and forces the financially constrained student to focus their priorities. In a notable analog, Private Equity firm principals have been known to "force focus" by loading a portfolio company with debt. Thus, creating a challenging financial environment to focus business leadership priorities.
The college choice architecture is built on a few key pillars and assumptions:
There are several decision categories and related questions relevant to the college choice.
The weighting of those categories is important.
Ranking of the existing college choices within those categories is important.
Having the ability to update as you learn is important. This includes separating important but mysterious "gut" feelings from objective information.
Finally, having a mechanism to sort it out and to aggregate decision recommendations is important.
The next section focuses on the key decision categories.
College Choice evaluation categories
The following are key categories I found helpful in supporting high school students through the college choice process. Please know, these are based on my experiences and as informed by others as discussed in the introduction. I am sure I left out some categories others may find useful. (In The College Decisionator tool introduced in the next section, the category weights are initialized based on these experiences. They may easily be changed to align with your expectations.)
First, as noted earlier, while you may have multiple objectives for your college experience, our goal is to help the student make a cost-effective college choice and enable them to graduate with a strong recruiting signal. (i.e., a high GPA)
Ideal Environment - this relates to narrowing the kind of campus and the associated activities available. It will include the social environment and finding a core group with aligned interests to the incoming student. As a rule of thumb, while important, I do find most colleges know how to put on a very good "college show." Meaning, if the student is ready for college, there are few colleges where you would not be able to find your group.
Distance from home - this can matter both economically and provide family support of the student. I think of college as the "halfway house" to independent adulthood. Some home support may make sense and having a reasonable geographic distance is helpful.
Commitment to field of study - If you know what you want to study, certainly, it is important to attend a college with strength in this field. Most high school kids have no idea what they want to study. This category also relates to the ability to easily change majors or even transferring credits to another school.
Academic pressure - this relates to finding a school where you will be challenged but not overwhelmed by the academic expectations. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this in his book, David and Goliath.
Prestige - this category is not about the college's brand reputation. It relates to job networking opportunities in the field or the community you may live in after graduation. In my experience, I find networking is helpful, but certainly should not be sacrificed for good grades.
Institutional Size - some emphasize school size. For example, "I want a big school" or "I want a small school." In general, I find most big schools are good at creating small communities within their university.
Finances - In general and within reason, I believe paying as little as practical for a good GPA is important. I am wary of student loans. To some degree, student loans are like a bamboo finger trap. Easy to insert your fingers, but difficult to pull them out. The U.S. has a significant problem with student loans. Be wary of creating a "Life Anchor," it is a slippery slope. Please see our article Higher Education Reimagined for more information, including the surprisingly high number of former students that default on student loans, fail to graduate, or fail to get a job requiring a college degree.
College Choice decision making
It is one thing to identify the important categories, it is another task entirely to weigh and rank your choices in a decision-making structure. Also, most people's learning process is evolutionary. They learn as they go. Learning occurs incrementally by attending college prep presentations, performing online research, talking to college counselors, learning from other parents, or doing a college visit. It is important to have a process for updating as you learn.
To this end, we have created The College Decisionator (TM). This is a software tool to help you make a college decision. This tool provides the college decision framework and walks the user through the weighting and ranking process unique for your situation. The tool can easily be updated as new information is received. The outcome is a college decision recommendation dashboard. It is easy to see the drivers of the college decision recommendation.
I have attached the beta version of The College Decisionator to this article on TheCuriosityVine.com.
Next are suggestions for getting the most out of The College Decisionator:
It is good to complete an initial evaluation BEFORE you go on a college visit. This will help you generate good questions. In fact, use the evaluation as a checklist in the initial college research stages.
If a particular question is close to a tie across colleges, you can rate it "Low importance" to reduce the weight. But it still must be rank-ordered.
Do your best to rank as honestly as you can. Have a follow-up with a school official or other knowledgeable people if you need more information. Do not get too hung up on the weighting and ranking. Remember, this is an iterative process. Make the call as well as you can and come back to it when you get more information.
The weights are initialized at a common starting point. Be sure to change them as necessary. Do not just go with the default.
If the modeled result is not reconciling with your prior expectations, that is probably because there is a) additional objective information not included or b) additional information you "feel" may be important. If a), then adjust the weights and rankings to appropriately adjust the model. Be honest! If b) then work through it and validate your gut. It could just be because you are nervous about going to college.
Regarding college costs, start with a max you would like to pay. For example, “No more than in-state public college tuition.” As you research, you may find out-of-state or private colleges have programs to get costs in line with your home state. You may update as you learn college cost programs.
If the top options are tied or nearly tied and you are satisfied with the evidence you have collected, I suggest choosing the college that is MOST SURPRISING. The reason being, our naturally occurring Familiarity Bias is like an invisible weight that may inappropriately add weight in favor of the least surprising option. (This concept is discussed in more detail in our article Changing Our Mind )
Most important, JUST DO IT! I know this feels overwhelming. Remember, 1) learning is iterative, 2) the answers are available 3) this tool will help you ask and answer the questions needed to make a GREAT DECISION!
The College Decisionator roadmap - We have several initiatives in the works. The objective is to improve and grow the effectiveness of The College Decisionator to help you make an informed college choice.
Smartphone app - The College Decisionator will be available for iPhone and Droid OSs.
College information - Colleges will provide structured information to help you make the decision. By virtue of your college options and initial rankings, colleges may provide you with targeted information. For example, what if one of the college choices you rank as "higher cost college." This college will provide you information for relevant scholarships and grants available to you.
Login and status - this will allow you to manage your college decision information over time and encourage you to make updates. For example, if your college list is incomplete, the status tracker will encourage you to provide your inputs.
Narratives and warnings - based on your college evaluation, you will be provided potential pitfalls. For example, if a college is ranked "Higher Cost College" and you will likely need loans to pay for college, you will be provided a potential "Life Anchor" warning. The purpose is to encourage grant and scholarship applications to help remediate this potential pitfall.
We have discussed key challenges and considerations for making an informed college choice. We discussed key elements to consider when making a college choice. Finally, we present college choice architecture software tools to practically help you make a choice. College can be an investment in your future career. Sadly, increasingly, college can devolve as a "Life Anchor." I hope this helps you make a successful choice!
For those that have made the college choice and are soon going to college, please read our article College Success! This will provide tools and tricks for getting the most out of your college experience.
Tips for parents or caregivers:
Make sure your kids own the process. Do not do it for them. Deciding on a college is a valuable life lesson.
Do your kids a favor, set a budget constraint. Too much choice is hard. Our budget constraint was “the equivalent of Virginia in-state tuition.” Pick a constraint that works for your situation.
Scholarships or grants are widely available but generally hard to find. The reason they are hard to find has to do with the agency of those providing and administering the funding. Be that as it may, incentivize your kids to pursue and apply for free money. Treat it like a job. In our case, we paid our kids a percent of the value of the scholarships and grants they earned. (A form of a sales commission) All our kids were successful in winning free money, in some cases half their tuition. It reduced total college costs, gave our kids walking around money, and helped our kids build life confidence. It is a win/win! By the way, most of their free money was won after their freshman year.
(1) College pricing is very interesting and sometimes complicated. In my experience, State colleges are the most straightforward. They have a published rate card. Generally, their pricing guidelines are regulated by their state Department of Education. Private schools can be tricky. I think of some private schools in the microeconomic context of price discrimination and a pricing strategy to capture consumer surplus. That is, some private schools price students individually and the actual final price is not known until the end of the college decision process.
To help explain college price discrimination and consumer surplus, the following is a more common car buying example, (with the college buying analog added in parenthesis.)
A car dealer (private school) will start with the car’s baseline maximum price, or "MSRP." (price on the private college’s internet page) They will then have different "car options" to adjust the price depending on the options package. (Private college’s academic college options, rooming options, food options, etc) Then, the real negotiation starts, where the dealership sales manager (admissions officer) will provide additional incentives to help close the deal. (grant and scholarship incentives) The sales manager is incented to close the deal and give up as little margin as possible. The sales manager will consider both your ability and willingness to pay the car price and adjust per your individual profile. (The private college uses the student’s financial / FAFSA and applicant/family profile information.) Timing is important as well. As one gets closer to the commitment date, the sales manager may change incentives depending on the pool size of existing sales commitments. If car sales (incoming freshman class pool size) are below target near the end of the reporting period, the sales manager may increase incentives.
Unfortunately, this can create a confusing environment for future college students. Especially because the primary buyer (the 17-year-old high school student) is not yet equipped to make such a high-impact financial decision. It also has created a cottage industry for private college counselors and college rankings. Part of the goal of The College Decisionator is to provide tools to help manage this information gathering and decision process. Especially for those not able to afford a private college counselor. While a private school may start at a higher price, you may be able to negotiate the price to the equivalent (or better) than in-state public college prices.
Our college decision tool beta version, The College Decisionator (TM), is available for download. This beta version operates on Microsoft Excel.
Other resources include:
Your Personal Finance Journey Guide:
Making the money!
7. Career success - Success Pillars - Maximizing luck with an adaptable mindset to reach your goals!
8. Career choices - Do I need to be a Data Scientist in an AI-enabled world?
9. Career choices - Diamonds In The Rough - A perspective on making high impact college hires
Spending the money!
10. Budgeting - Budgeting like a stoic
12. College choice - The College Decision - Framework and tools for investing in your future
13. College choice - College Success!
14. College choice - How to make money in Student Lending
15. Event spending - Wedding and event planning guiding principle
Investing the money!
Pulling it together!