For many incoming high school seniors and their families, this summer starts the whirlwind process of choosing a college. I was in that same boat just a year ago, and I know the process sometimes felt more like a wobbly canoe or homemade raft, but that time changed how I look at the college search process.
That says something, because I’m not only the parent of a college student, but also the president of a liberal arts college. So what did the college search experience show me? That the flavor and culture of any college a young person is considering matters, and higher education leaders are not doing a good enough job expressing its importance.
Instead, year after year, you can find other private college presidents arguing that, once scholarships and other aid are factored in, their institutions are at least the same price, if not more affordable, than many of our public counterparts. I also see colleagues boasting about job-placement rates, graduate school enrollments and how their students learn marketable skills. These are all important, but it’s nothing new.
What I don’t see, however, are people talking about value — and not the way grocery stores do — but value in terms of ideas, aspirations, the kind of person you want to become, the kind of experiences and environments that will bring out the best in you. The kind of place where you will be surprised by uncovering your potential. That is neither a financial argument nor a (direct) results argument. But it is the most important argument.
The importance of value and culture solidified for me when my daughter chose to attend my college after my wife and I strongly encouraged her to spread her wings, look at lots of colleges, get out of her comfort zone. While she did visit numerous other schools, she chose my institution, surprisingly. I asked her why she had done so after we urged her to explore other options.
While I should have expected her to do the opposite of what her mother and I suggested, she reminded me it was not long ago that we moved from Ohio to Central Pennsylvania. She had left her comfort zone already.
She was not petulant or upset when she shared this. Rather, she had reflected on what she wanted out of her educational journey and saw she could have the experiences she hoped for here. She thought about what she valued and stated a thoughtful rationale for why this institution was the right fit for her. She thought about value.
When I talk with families, I am struck by their surprise at the degree to which cultures differ from one campus to another. But when they learn how competitive a place might be, or whether it leans toward science and tech in its students’ interests or has more of an artistic vibe, they ask better questions. They realize potential, networks and the long game (so to speak) are of equal if not greater importance than the immediate details of cost comparisons.
This is critical to understand because students are on different journeys. Students should be thoughtful about the value they wish to gain from their education, and parents should encourage that reflection.
What does that place offer? How do you ask? And as you ask, are you uncovering more layers? Is a place competing only on price and otherwise not terribly distinct? If you ask only about price and job placements, you will get only those answers. For many great colleges, those answers sound about the same. But if you ask better questions, about values and culture and aspiration and your personal journey, you will make the wiser investment.
Hearing students share what made them choose to attend my institution is always interesting because of the degree to which their values drive the decision. While price and results are part of the equation, and to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous, value always rules the day.
Jim Troha is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.