College Is a Journey, Not a Destination

Martha O’Connell is the executive director of Colleges That Change Lives, a nonprofit organization that focuses on a student-centered college search process.

If I made a bumper sticker for the college search process, it would read, “College: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination.”

Too often, students will race through their secondary school years, compiling tallies of courses and A.P. credits completed, joining activities to lengthen their resume, taking and retaking SAT and ACT exams and always keeping one eye on the prize of the college destination.

These same students arrive at college only to repeat this process with a goal of admission to graduate and professional schools or to land that perfect first job.

We live in a goal-focused society in which becoming a mindful, lifelong learner — instead of an educational trophy hunter — is not an easily achieved state of mind.

If I held the magic wand for education, my wish would be that students might approach the college search, as well as their day-to-day learning, with a greater appreciation for the long view: It is not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey.

Too often the college search includes the flawed approach of using rankings that tout the statistics of the entering class, rather than focusing on what happens during the four years that students are enrolled.

Researching colleges based on student outcomes will highlight many colleges that outperform the Ivies and name-brand schools, but don’t have the benefit of name recognition. The research from the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium on the undergraduate origins of Ph.D.’s finds lesser-known colleges listed in the top 10 in various categories of producers of future Ph.D.’s, often ahead of the usual suspects.

As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars, but the college search requires a more personalized approach. It can’t be reduced to rankings with numerical values when it requires a thoughtful self-inventory, starting with determining a student’s motivation for attending college: their needs and desires, learning styles and interests, and the community of learners of which they envision being a part.

This self-inventory is important for identifying colleges that fit an individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the top tier of the U.S News & World Report rankings and other lists have any value.

Stressed-out students and their anxious, hovering parents would do well to add some lesser-known colleges to their search process, where the chance for gaining admission is greater and the outcomes the same or better than the highly recognized hundred or so colleges admitting a fraction of applicants.

The National Survey of Student Engagement is a valuable resource for gathering information about college outcomes and provides a list of the right questions to ask before choosing a college.

How quickly a student engages in the academic and co-curricular life of the campus will make the difference not only in his or her early success as an undergraduate, but in on-time degree completion and in reaching goals beyond college.

It may be the most important tool a family can use to answer the recent most frequently posed question about the cost and value of a college education: “Is it worth it?”

Perhaps the Irish poet Yeats had a better idea for that bumper sticker: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

All of us in teaching and college counseling can agree on that sentiment and maybe we can rededicate ourselves to sharing that wisdom with our students on their educational journeys.