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Student Engagement at College Trumps College Selectivity

Posted by Lauren Boucher, Associate Director of College Counseling on Sep 23, 2019 10:59:37 AM

Here’s a crazy statistic:  Seventy-five percent of the applicants to Stanford are admittable.  However, only five percent of these applicants receive a “You’ve been admitted!” letter or email.  

A06I4928Denise Pope, one of the founders of Challenge Success, doesn’t get wound up asking why the 70% didn’t get in; her focus is instead on where the 70% who didn’t get admitted to Stanford ultimately attend college. Beyond that, she and her colleagues at Challenge Success -- an organization based at Stanford whose mission promotes student well-being and engagement with learning -- ask an even more important question, “Regardless of where a student goes to college, are they ready?”  Do they have the academic, social-emotional, and life skills to cope with whatever challenges arise?

In June I attended a conference for independent school college counselors held in San Francisco.  Pope was our keynote speaker, and she said that college engagement matters more than selectivity, but she started by discussing the college-related worries of parents and their high-school aged kids. She said that some parents worry about their children not being admitted to college, they worry about being disappointed with where their child attends college and about what others will say, and they also worry about paying for college.  Their kids, on the other hand, worry about disappointing their parents -- children, by and large, are pleasers. Kids worry about not living up to the sometimes unrealistic expectations of adults in their lives. One high school senior told Pope, “Our grades are what make up our future, and if you don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good college, and you won’t get a good job, and you will lead a miserable life.” Ouch.  

What does the average student in the US do to achieve? On average they complete three hours of homework after having spent two-plus hours playing soccer, practicing for the upcoming musical, or producing a yearbook.  To top it off, students are sleeping an average of 6.7 hours a night when they need 8 to 10. The academic tolls associated with being overloaded include disengagement, a lack of creativity, and increased cheating. And then there’s the compromised health of our teenagers.  Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are causes for concern, and this is feeding a lack of resilience.  

A06I4884So what’s driving this sense of pressure?  Remember the 5% Stanford stat at the start of this post?  It is tougher to get into some colleges even if you meet all of the criteria, and rankings are fueling the perception of and competition for highly-selective schools.  On top of that, the cost has increased, leaving families concerned about debt and the return-on-investment of going to college. So what do the researchers at Challenge Success have to say when a parent or student asks if the level of selectivity of a college matters for long-term outcomes? What the Challenge Success team learned is that going to a selective school will not lead to more learning, job satisfaction, or well-being.  Having an encouraging mentor, working on a multi-semester project, and participating in internships that allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life settings are three examples of how engagement in college is critical to success. 

Students who do exhibit well-being thrive in five ways: these students have purpose, they like what they do and are motivated toward goals; socially, they are supported by strong relationships and feel loved; financially, they are learning to manage money; they like where they live, they feel engaged, and have a sense of pride; and finally, they are in good health and have energy.  Regarding income, Challenge Success found that there is a difference between earning an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, but they also found that it’s the student, not the school that makes the difference.  

So what can parents and faculty at schools like Tabor do to help ease the anxieties of our students?  Pope and her colleagues at Challenge Success suggest a couple of keys. First, protect PDF: playtime, downtime, and family time.  Ensure that there is enough time to play, to unwind, and relax, allowing students to consider essential questions like “Who am I?” and “Do I belong?”  As part of this, adults need to help teens get enough sleep. Remember, teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Students also need consistent doses of family time; this increases achievement and well-being and decreases risky behaviors.  

The second key to helping our kids be healthy is communicating what matters.  Consider the first thing out of your mouth when you see or talk to your child at the end of the day.  When it comes to discussing college, reflect on your stake in where your child goes to college and the power of “brand” tee-shirts and bumper stickers.  Create college-free zones -- places and times where you and your child agree not to talk about college. And when you do talk about college, remember what Pope and her colleagues discovered: “Regardless of whether a student attends a college ranked in the top 5% or one ranked much lower, the research strongly suggests that engagement in college matters much more in the long run than the college a student attends.”  So, as we start the school year, let’s remember that playtime, downtime, family time (PDF), and consistent healthy communication without constant chatter about college will go a long way toward helping students experience success.  A06I4898

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