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Not so Fast

Not so Fast

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Strategy and Enrollment Planning, Matt McLendon, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Matt!

One of my favorite puzzles comes from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by economist Daniel Kahneman. The riddle is deceptively simple: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The answer? Five cents. Despite many years of reading that problem, my intuition always says 10 cents. (Curious? View an explanation of the answer here.) Kahneman’s argument is we have two mental systems in place. One system thinks quickly and makes snap judgements, while the other requires effort and strains our mental capacity. It turns out, the intuitive or fast answer is often wrong. To arrive at the correct response requires us to slow down and use reasoning, not intuition alone.

A Ball Park Figure

Photo credit: https://www.ballparksofbaseball.com/

The baseball riddle occurred to me during a chat with Director of Admission, Rick Clark, on how much of the news about college admission focuses on a tiny subsection of the overall number of colleges. In particular, the universities with a large number of applications and exceedingly low admit rates receive a lot of press. This attention leads to “fast thinking” errors among many students and families, leading people to believe the best choice is the most selective, and not getting into one of those schools spells disaster for the future.

Recently more has been written about the challenges this belief brings to the college admission process.  This article by Jeff Selingo written a few years ago and Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go is Not Who You Will Be are two examples.

Despite their data, anecdotes, and logic, I can hear the argument from those saying, “That’s all well and good, but I still want to go to one of those institutions.” To which I say if that is where you want to go, then I hope you do. However, I also urge you to consider Kahneman’s baseball example and take the time to “think slowly” and realize there are many more options than may first appear. Doing this requires extra thinking, setting aside biases, and really considering your interests and goals, as you contemplate where to attend college.

Throwing a Curve Ball

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education created a chart showing institutions with an admit rate greater than 50% who also boasted high first to second year retention rates. Many of these schools you have heard of before—and some may surprise you. All around the country, numerous colleges and universities are taking steps to improve student outcomes. The Chronicle list was a good reminder that many colleges in our nation do an excellent job helping students succeed—not just a select few.

After reviewing that information, I wanted to look at the data in a slightly different way. I conducted a quick analysis using a subset of IPEDS data comparing admit rates to graduation rates for four-year degree granting institutions in the United States.

As you will see in the descriptive chart below, colleges and universities with less than or equal to 20% admit rates have remarkable graduation rates. Do you notice something else? There’s not that many of them! In my selected data set, just over 40 colleges and universities fit those criteria.

 

This second chart below, however, tells another story. There are well over 400 schools with admit rates over 50% and a graduation rate at or above the national average of 60% (NCES, 2017).

Many of these of the colleges and universities in this second group are doing good work to help their students graduate. However, much of what is in the media and within social circles is dedicated to those schools in the first set.

What does this mean for you? To return to our baseball bat and ball problem from before, I encourage some extra thinking with your college choices.  You may be a fan of a particular school since kindergarten, but what about the schools you’ve dismissed? Are you writing them off based on fast or slow thinking? Do a few of them deserve a second look? Don’t forget the incredible number of colleges you have to consider, visit, or apply.

Step Up to the Plate

Here are a few things to consider as you approach the college admission, and selection, process.

  1. Start with your why. Why do you want to go to college? A great post on this topic from a few years back talks in more detail. We also have a great tool in our college planning guide. Both these will re-frame your thinking on what you look to get out of going to college, not just where you’ll go.
  2. Dive into the data. There are many effective tools that are easy to use and can benefit you, the largest of which is the College Scorecard. This tool allows you to compare multiple institutions and draws from the data colleges and universities are required to report. Compare a few metrics such as retention, student debt, and employment. Do any surprise you?
  3. Set aside biases. Are you overlooking a particular school based on a hunch? Check out a few that are outside of what you think may be for you. Remember all those brochures you received in the mail you tossed in the recycle bin? Pull out a random sample of five and read them. Even if you don’t apply, you may find some information that helps you clarify why you like the universities you do.
  4. Read widely. I’ve given a few examples already, but also look into what professionals are saying. I know your time is limited, but there is a substantial amount of information out there on college admission. An excellent place to start is the admission professional association NACAC. While a good deal is for professionals in the industry, there is a lot you can gather from what the practitioners are saying.

My hope is that you will approach your college admission experience the way baseball players approach the game they love—prepare, study, work hard, but when the lights come on and the game starts— play your game and enjoy!

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