Defining Higher Education Success

As we begin another academic year, let's help our students find the right match and fit.

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Nicole Hurd, who served as an assistant dean at the University of Virginia, is the founder and executive director of the National College Advising Corps, headquartered at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.

There is a great deal of discussion today about the importance of a college degree. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the future will require some postsecondary education or training. If you look at who has fared best in this economic downturn, there is a direct correlation between the unemployment rate and one's level of educational attainment.

Yet we also hear we are falling short. Not long ago, the United States used to have the highest number of college graduates among industrialized nations. Currently, we are in 13th place. This has significant ramifications on our strength as a nation as well as our ability to compete in the global economy.

In order to raise graduation rates in this country, we have to ask ourselves two important questions: Why do only half of the students in the United States who start college actually make it to graduation? Why are our students not college-ready?

The answers to these questions usually assign blame to our high schools, parents, and students. Yet, with over 6,000 higher education institutions in the United States, we need to look at our colleges and universities as well. The new golden rule in the college admissions process is this: You need to find a school that will serve you well. Students need to be ready for college academically, but you also need to ask, "Is the college ready for you?"

Critical questions you should ask when looking at colleges/universities for your student are:

• What is the graduation rate of the school?

• What is the graduation rate for students of my child's background?

• What is the freshman retention rate (the percentage of first year students who return for a second year)?

• What is the total cost for my student (not just the cost of tuition, but also books, room and board, etc.)?

• Given your finances, what will be the actual cost of attendance (not the advertised cost, but your cost after using the college's net price calculator, which is required by the U.S. Department of Education to be on the college's website by Oct. 29, 2011)?

• Are there any academic and social supports available to students to help them along the way? Are there peer mentors? Faculty mentors?

• Is there a bridge program, summer immersion, or orientation program that can help my student make the transition to college successfully?

In our work at the National College Advising Corps, we call these "best match" and "best fit" questions.

The concept of "college match," as defined by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago in their 2008 report titled "From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College," documents that a student who applies to and enrolls in a college or university with an admission selectivity rating that matches his/her academic qualifications is more likely to succeed in school and attain a college degree.

The report showed that the academic match of students based on their unweighted GPAs and their most recent ACT/SAT score to the selectivity rating of the postsecondary institution they enrolled in was a critical key to completion rates and success.

The research concluded with the shocking finding that "across all students, two-thirds (62 percent) of students attended a college with a selectivity level that was below the kinds of colleges they would have most likely been accepted to given their level of academic qualifications."

This concept is called "under-matching" and has been further documented by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson in their book, Crossing the Finish Line. Students need to attend schools that they are ready for academically. And likewise, they need to attend schools that are prepared to offer them the courses and support that will get them to the finish line.