In mid-February, we pay our respects to love. People who do not have a special someone are looking for the perfect match, and those who have already found the best fit for them are on the hook for various tokens of their undying love and devotion. For some reason, Valentine’s Day always reminds me of an hourlong rant I once sat through during college on why one of my good friends could never date or marry a supermodel. One evening, my friend just started listing and explaining reasons why his lifestyle and that of a supermodel's would not mesh. His lecture was not really necessary: He wasn’t rich or incredibly handsome and really had no prospects of becoming either within the next year or so. In other words, it was a good thing he realized he may not be a good fit with a supermodel, regardless of his slightly skewed reasons. As he put it, “… A supermodel would just be a bad fit for me and how I want to live my life.” As deluded as his rant was, my old friend was right about one thing: Fit is important.
I’ll know when it’s right
The Christmas before we had our first child, my wife presented me with a well-loaded gift card to the gift shop of my favorite NFL team with the understanding that it would likely be my last free-for-all for a long, long time. I tried on countless jerseys and shirts, looking for just the right fit. I estimate my in-store shopping time at about two or three hours, not counting how long I browsed online in preparation for the trip. In total, I spent approximately five hours looking before I committed to my beloved jersey that fits me just right.
I spent zero hours deciding which college to attend. I went to the one where my dad went. It was close, relatively cheap and, most importantly, they were willing to take a chance on a poor, clueless, country kid. I have no idea if it was the right place for me. I am guessing, given how tough my undergraduate years were, that it was likely not the best fit for me. Was it a bad school? No. Was I a bad kid? No. Was it a bad fit? Probably.
What is fit?
When we talk about "fit" in terms of college readiness, we are talking about selecting a school at which a student can maximize their chances of maximizing their potential. A relatively recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education did a great job of discussing the idea of fit in terms of highly qualified low-income students (students with test scores in the top 10 percent and incomes in the bottom 25 percent). Likewise, a book titled "Crossing the Finish Line" offers an even more in-depth look at how to increase the odds of college completion. In short, just like mates and football jerseys, what is one student’s best fit is another’s worst fit. It is highly variable and based on many factors, like size of school, distance from home, diversity levels, cost, field of study and chance for success.
So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
Finding a good fit requires examining how others similar to you (or your student) have done at a given school. One place to start is the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator. For fun, I entered in my old information to see which school came up. The school I attended by default did pop up, but the retention/completion numbers let me know I had about a 50/50 shot of graduating within six years. Given that information, I should have probably done some junior college time based on a variety of factors ranging from my academic unpreparedness to the fact that my hometown had about 300 people in it, and the school I attended had 20,000 students in a city with another 20,000 permanent residents. I spent my whole first semester looking up at buildings (all with indoor plumbing and central air) with my mouth agape. I was in lecture halls that could have housed my entire village with room to spare. I realize now I was lucky to enjoy the good fortune of a sleeping dog on the porch.
It’s not you, it’s me
Undermatching, as described in "Crossing the Finish Line," is defined as the failure of highly qualified students to attend selective schools in exchange for attendance at a less rigorous school. Clearly, there are countless reasons why this may occur. Though my peer group helped me to survive and finish (we formed a mini-community based on our common hometown), sometimes, peer groups are to blame for undermatching. If all of your friends are going to School X, even if you applied and were accepted to a rigorous, highfalutin’ university, you may be more likely to bend to peer pressure and attend the safe school, which reduces your chance for completion.
To avoid undermatching and to obtain a good fit, it is a good idea to use the ACT Score Report along with the College Navigator. These reports, in student, high school and postsecondary flavors, include a wealth of information that is useful in determining fit. Along with the academic information you need to get predictions about odds of succeeding in certain courses, these reports include other campus preference data (size, tuition expectations, etc.) along with career interest information that could be very useful for planning a college completion strategy. For example, because I had no clue about what I wanted to do when I graduated from college, my path wandered, and when the meter is ticking—student loans, work study money, lost earned income—wandering isn’t ideal. Line of sight is important to successful college completion and “best fit” data can be a huge help in determining a clear path.
A final tool that could help achieve a best fit for college is the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s GPA Predictor. Select the GPA tool and type in the requested information, and you will get an idea of how well, overall, you or your student will do at a given school. I encourage use of this tool because it is free, easy and gives you a good idea of on what kinds of information you need to focus your efforts. How many English and math classes did you take? Where do you plan to attend? What was your high school GPA? Where did you go to high school? How much money do your parents make? What was your ACT composite? How many hours do you plan to take, and how many of those do you intend to take for no credit (remedial/developmental courses)? Do you plan to pursue a STEM major? I didn’t think of ANY of these things before I chose a school—but I should have. This tool is a good prompt for thinking about your college journey.
My college friend found his best fit, and, not surprisingly, she was not a supermodel. Part of knowing what will fit is knowing what won’t, and he put the work in to fully populate both lists. Here’s hoping you or your student do the same to find the best college fit and that you all live happily ever after.
Keith White is PEF Chattanooga’s director of research and effectiveness. Feel free to reach out to him by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.