Why are we all willing to pay more for name brand items in the store when we know the generic is the same thing? Is it our history with certain items; foods that we’ve been eating since we were kids? Is it a catchy jingle or hilarious TV commercial? I’ll admit, some generic brands just don’t measure up but for the most part it’s our prejudices at play here.

It’s the same with colleges. Popular schools are not well known for no reason at all. Many “name brand” schools have earned their excellent reputations. Students often have great experiences here and graduate prepared to enter their chosen fields. But just because a school is well known does not guarantee student success and conducting your college search by name recognition alone is a great way to totally overlook some amazing options.

Back in my day of college admissions I worked for a flagship state institution and visited high schools as part of my recruitment efforts in northern New Jersey. What always amazed me was the drastically different levels of interest exhibited by students based on where I was. You might expect this as I traveled to different regions, say from a more urban center to a rural regional high school, but this had nothing to do with the differences I saw. For example, I would visit a particular high school within ten minutes of New Providence and fill an auditorium. I’m talking standing room only. Students there were hanging on my every word and I’d distribute two boxes of brochures before I left. Several would stay after my presentation to shake my hand and tell me how much they were excited about my college. At a very comparable high school also in this ten-minute radius I would be lucky if five students showed up. Five. They’d have little to no previous knowledge about my college and sometimes were only there because the college had come up during an online search or was suggested by their counselor. I’d leave without very high hopes of seeing applications from any of them.

What’s going on here? One year at that first mega-hit high school I asked the counselor about it. The counselor smiled, fired up her Naviance and showed me the steep upward trend for applications to my school that started about seven years back. Turns out that year the captain of their football team and “Most Popular Boy in School” applied and ended up attending my college. He came back for homecoming his freshman year and told that year’s seniors how awesome his experience had been so far. That year we saw ten applications from them. Twenty the next. You see where this is going. 

These students, while I’m glad they enjoyed their time at college, weren’t making choices based on individual research they’d done but anecdotal evidence from friends of friends. Meanwhile kids at the second high school were most likely following similar advice that just happened to be pointing towards other colleges that probably worked out just as well. We’re talking about two high schools in the same travel soccer leagues.

Let me give you another scenario, a hypothetical one this time. Student A hears from his neighbor’s big sister that Popular University is the best place to go. This opinion is then reinforced from the kid behind him in Algebra. His mom hears that a friend’s daughter from church just got accepted there early decision. This becomes the place to be for this family. Without doing much else, he applies, is accepted, attends maybe one on-campus event, and enrolls for the fall. Yes, it’s a great school but once on campus he quickly finds he has nothing in common with other students there. The school is kinda in the middle of nowhere, which doesn’t bother some people but it’s making him feel stir crazy. He’s in giant lecture halls for most of his classes and he’s quickly falling behind.

Then there’s Student B. She’s meandering around a local college fair one day and gets talking to a rep from Hole in the Wall College. It’s small, a few states over, and has just started to recruit in this area. Not many students have heard of it yet (her guidance counselor had to Google it) but as they’re talking Student A starts to get excited about their Chemistry research program and a service-learning trip she’d love to take. She visits the campus soon after and everything seems to click. After sending her enrollment deposit she finds herself having to repeat the name of the college multiple times to people who ask her where she’ll be in the fall. “Is that the one near Pittsburgh?” No, it’s not, but she doesn’t mind the questions. She starts school, applies for the research position, ends up on a student board for service learning, and graduates having had the best experience of her life.

Name brand means nothing if it’s not the right place for you. It’s all about YOUR EXPERIENCE; both what you put into it and what you get out of it. A student who sits in his dorm for four years at Harvard just won’t get the same results as the one at a regional school who earned leadership roles on campus and made amazing professional contacts during multiple internships.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea to listen to the advice of others. There’s a good chance that people who know you well might have some great suggestions. And maybe one of those name brands is going to end up being the best place for you. The problems begin when a family won’t consider anything other than a popular school simply because they are unwilling to part with the prestige of buying sweatshirts and car decals with an impressive name on them. The point is for the student to be happy and successful, right? Isn’t that worth thinking outside the box? 

By Kate Balboni

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