Doing Better: Picking a college should be about fit, not brand

If they aren’t done already, high school seniors around the state will likely spend part of their winter break completing college applications that are due at many institutions shortly after the New Year.

No matter how impressive their resumes, most students are far from assured of winning a spot in next fall’s freshman class at some of our state’s most selective colleges and universities. According to U.S. News & World Report statistics, Duke University’s acceptance rate stands at 11 percent, and Davidson College admits only 22 percent of applicants. UNC-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University and Catawba College are not far behind at 29 percent, 34 percent, and 36 percent, respectively.

A number of our leading public universities, including N.C. Central, N.C. School of the Arts, and Western Carolina, admit less than half of their applicants.

Not surprisingly, the increasingly hyper-competitive nature of college admissions has bred a generation of hyper-anxious parents and teenagers who have become obsessed with polishing their application credentials. It is into this nerve-racking environment that author Julie Lythcott-Haims introduces a welcome gift for this holiday season: perspective.

Other measurements

Lythcott-Haims spent a decade as the dean of freshmen at Stanford University. There she witnessed first-hand the rise of “helicopter parenting” in the United States – the much-documented penchant, especially among middle and upper-middle class families, for managing every detail of kids’ lives and resumes in an effort to secure them an elite education and a good job. What we’ve ended up with, in Lythcott-Haims’ view, are too many young adults who are short on self-awareness, can’t think critically and are terrified of making mistakes.

As a mother of two, Lythcott-Haims offers a more nuanced take on parenting in “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” Her book is refreshing in many ways, and, as parents ourselves, we highly recommend it.

A chapter that encourages families to “Have a Wider Mind-set About Colleges” is particularly helpful as the college admissions cycle shifts into high gear this winter. Lythcott-Haims urges families to take the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which have long been the most influential in the field, with more than a few grains of salt.

The reality, she says, is that most kids can’t get into the most elite schools, which have acceptance rates in the single digits or very low double digits. And that’s fine – because picking a college should be much more about fit than brand. Rather than obsessing over rankings, students should instead look closely at academic specialties, the size of the campus community, the social and intellectual environments and other factors that will impact how engaged they feel. In that spirit, Lythcott-Haims offers a few intriguing alternatives to the U.S. News rankings that heavily incorporate alumni input and career data.

Find a good fit

The nonprofit Colleges That Change Lives, based on the work of late higher education journalist Loren Pope, touts the work of about 40 small colleges nationally that emphasize extensive collaboration between faculty and undergraduates and immersion in close-knit learning communities. Greensboro’s Guilford College is among the group’s member schools.

The Alumni Factor, started in 2013, gathers extensive amounts of alumni feedback on more than a dozen data points, including intellectual and social skills development, preparation for career success, average income and net worth of graduate households and overall happiness of graduates. Its list of the 227 top schools nationally features seven from North Carolina: Appalachian State, Davidson, Duke, Elon, N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest.

Then there’s LinkedIn, which has analyzed millions of its alumni profiles to determine which colleges and universities send their graduates to the most sought-after companies in their respective industries. The LinkedIn University Rankings, launched last year, continually incorporate fresh data from the more than 300 million LinkedIn members worldwide. Collectively, Duke, UNC and Wake Forest combine to earn Top 25 rankings in fields ranging from accounting, finance and investment banking to marketing, media and software development.

We’re fortunate to live in a state that is teeming with outstanding institutions of higher education. And there’s a very good chance that this year’s high school seniors who want to stay in-state will find a good fit, even if it’s ultimately not the same school that’s on the top of their wish list right now.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.