College Academic Advisor Says There Are No ‘Dream Schools’

  • I was an academic advisor at a college for six years.
  • A good school for students is one that gives them opportunities – and all schools will do that.
  • Students should consider debt when applying to college.

Every year I asked incoming freshmen why they chose our school. Many had dreamed of going there. And then there were others: “Well, it wasn’t my first choice. But it’s where I got financial support, so here I am.”

I heard variations of it every year, sometimes accompanied by an embarrassed shrug. We romanticize finding a top-notch college that is “a good fit” or “is the place for you.” Students who cannot attend, or cannot afford, the school of their choice fear missing out.

Perhaps it’s coming from US News and World Report rankings — which are now pushing some universities back — from early-decision programs or universities eager to hire new staff. Or maybe it’s coming from us parents who are worried that our children will be left behind economically and are looking for “good schools” to help them get ahead.

While there are certain things to evaluate—accreditation, graduation rates, campus safety—I will not talk to my kids about a “dream” school. Having worked in higher education for years, I want to teach them to make the most of wherever they go. Other experts agree; Getting into a top school isn’t necessarily the best goal.

College is expensive, and debt should be factored into the decision-making process

College comes with tremendous costs for students and families. For my children, debt will be a deciding factor and we will be open to all post-secondary options.

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I know firsthand how debt limits choices after graduation. Through a combination of luck, privilege, and effort, I graduated college with no debt. I was able to teach abroad, which paid little but was rich in experience. Later, my partner and I both attended graduate school. Although we have chosen programs funded through teaching and research assistantships, we have still accumulated over $130,000 in debt. We both enjoy our jobs, but since then every decision – employer, family, apartment, vacation – has been shaped by debt.

Not every school has deep pockets and wealthy alumni. But every institution — and I mean community colleges, government schools of all sizes, trade schools, private schools, and online degree programs — has talented, dedicated professionals and professors who are connected to others in their field. Each institution has job boards, career counselors, internships, and community connections.

Every school has opportunities

In my opinion, a school that gives you opportunities is a good school. And all schools can do that if you’re someone who welcomes opportunity, works hard, asks questions, talks to professors, visits the career center, and tries out student organizations and internships.

I will tell my children that. And then I tell this story: My partner works with an intern who attended our small community college. She worked hard in engineering classes and was encouraged by professors to apply for the internship. During her internship she was responsible and committed. Now the company is supporting her in completing her bachelor’s degree with a scholarship to cover the costs of our state school. She has many connections and career prospects after graduation. This is not a privileged student. She didn’t go to her dream school, but she made the most of the school she attended.

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My hope for my kids isn’t that they have connections with wealthy alumni at Fortune 500 companies — but that they find meaningful work in their communities, become caring and committed people, and surround themselves with others who are doing the same. This goal can be achieved at any institution.

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