As founder of Road2College, much of my work centers on helping parents navigate two real concerns–how to get their students into college, and how to pay for it.
Still, when I consider the important question of whether college is worth it, I know the answer can’t be calculated simply on the basis of a “dream” school’s prestige, or even its affordability. Getting into college is not an end goal, but a means to living a purposeful, happy, financially attainable life after college.
Gallup Survey Finds Quality of College Experiences Key to Success and Happiness In Life After College
A recent post in our FB group discussing a 2014 study by Gallup and Purdue University, the Gallup-Purdue Index (now called the Strada-Gallup Survey) highlights the point that quality of college life matters very much for a happy life after graduation.
In the area of support and mentorship:
- At least one professor who made the student excited about learning.
- Professors whom the student felt cared about them.
- A mentor who encouraged the student’s hopes and dreams.
And in the area of experiential, holistic learning:
- A book project that took a semester or more to complete.
- An internship or job that applied classroom learning.
- Many extracurricular activities, with lots of participation.
Fourteen percent of alumni responded positively to all three support statements. Only six percent strongly agreed with all three experiential statements. And only three percent strongly agreed with all six statements.
The majority (75 percent) of those students who strongly agreed they’d had all six experiences graduated from college in four years.
Those who could not strongly agree with any of the big six experiences (61 percent) graduated in four years. For those who did not graduate in four years, the additional cost was around $65,319 a year. This amount figures in tuition, fees, and according to Gallop.com: “Opportunity costs of extra time in school and wage earnings.”
With over two million college students enrolled full-time needing an extra year of college, the fifth-year effect on the economy begins to mount with every passing graduating class. (To read more about these findings see “Is College Worth It? That Depends.”)
It’s not just about money, however. Students who reported more positive experiences also believed themselves better prepared for life after college.
As David Coleman, CEO of College Board said, the three percent who had close relationships with inspiring teachers and mentors and intensive engagement with activities outside the class, along with in-depth study and the chance to apply academic ideas, all reported that college changed their lives for the better.
Students who graduate on time generally find their community, career, life path, and independence sooner, and this can make them happier.
Road2College Facebook Discussion: Gallup Survey Strikes a Nerve
Paying for College 101 FB group member, Carol E. Ben-Davies, says she’s worked in college admissions and student life and “has seen it all.” She posted the Gallup poll to highlight her sense that “Getting into a dream college does not mean having a dream experience.”
Davies urged other parents to think beyond the glossy brochures, asking them to consider how much stress and debt is caused by the new average of a five to six-year college plan–and what can be done to shorten it. “We are not preparing students for college, we’re preparing them for college admissions. There’s a big difference.” She goes on to say, “How we’ve been approaching the admissions process is outdated, is no longer serving the majority of students, and is coming at the expense of the mental health of too many students.”
In her post, Davies also asked parents to have their students consider what they like to do every day and how that translates into a good life in college and beyond–advocating for the “five pillars of well-being”–career well-being, social well-being, economic well-being, good health, and strong community.
Most parents expressed gratitude for the post’s honesty. A few worried that the Gallup poll could be used to push “test-based education” over “liberal arts” or to prioritize Advanced Placement courses in high school over equitable child-centered education.
Even with these concerns, parents shared Davies’ sense that holistic education and well-being are important to all students and something colleges should be pressed to provide.
Time Well Spent
I wish I had known about the Gallup-Purdue study before my older two children went to college. They got lucky in that they were intrinsically drawn to schools that had some of what this study defined as being important.
But with my youngest, who is an incoming college freshman, I’m not leaving anything to chance.
As a family, we accepted that looking for colleges offering the “big six experiences” would take more work upfront. We were willing to do it though because, in the long run, we think it’s worth it.
Ask Questions, Make Lists: How to Use the Gallup Findings to Evaluate Colleges
Your child might ask college freshmen in their major questions such as:
- What are professors like?
- What and where do students eat or go out at night–and how expensive is it?
- How would you rate the dorms?
- What campus activities and sports are available? Do lots of people participate?
To further help parents and students figure out if a school offers the “big six” opportunities and is a good fit, consider the following:
- Does the school offer your child’s desired major?
- Is the school in the city or the country? (How comfortable is your child with the surrounding environment?)
- Is the school far away from home or close? Which is better for your student and why?
- What percentage of classes are taught by graduate students, part-time faculty, or non-tenure-track faculty? (Students can’t find full-time professors as mentors if they don’t interact with them.)
- Does the school offer mentorship opportunities? If so,
- Are there official mentorship programs?
- Do they match older students to new students?
- Do they match faculty to students?
- Are there mentorship opportunities for first-generation college students? If so, what are they?
- Does the school encourage faculty-student meals or other easy ways to connect with faculty outside of class and office hours? If so, how?
- Does the school offer internships?
- What and where are they?
- Does the school guarantee an internship for any student who wants one?
- What happens if students can’t afford to participate in free internships–does the college offer any type of stipend or subsidy?
- Are there long-term and group project activities?
- Are there requirements for an independent study, internship, service-learning project, research assistantship, or senior thesis?
- What kind of extracurricular activities are offered?
- What campus organizations are there?
- Is there a career services office? Does the college make sure all students and families know what to expect from it?
- How good at job or graduate program placement is the school post-graduation?
- Is there a strong alumni presence post-graduation?
In addition, try our online college insights tool to get a better sense of whether a school is a good fit financially and academically, and as your student hones their college life values, encourage them to make a checklist.
No one can make college a perfect experience for their child. What we can do is shift our thinking about what being accepted to a school means.
Acceptance itself is not the happy ending to a difficult process, but rather the exciting beginning to a meaningful future.
By asking the right questions, doing research, and being a part of a community, we (parents, educators, and students) can make that beginning as good as possible.
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