College IS For Everyone; Higher Ed Institutions Need to Find Their Fit

Ladder - MetalA recent article from David Leonhardt of the New York Times synthesized two interesting and vitally important studies on higher education, both looking at degree completion and benefits among marginal, at-risk students. These are the students people have in mind when they ask “Is college really for everyone?”

The studies used common admissions benchmarks set by less selective colleges – including a score of 840 on the SAT and a C+ average as cutoff points – to identify and analyze two distinct groups of students, almost identical in ability: one group that was admitted to a four-year institution and one that was not.

While the results pointed to a heightened need to invest more in helping these at-risk students complete a four-year degree, one conclusion was undeniable: yes, college is worth it for everyone who is capable of earning a degree. The benefits are just too significant; one study found that by their late 20s, students who hit the admissions benchmark and enrolled in a four-year institution right away earned an average of 22 percent more than their peers who initially missed the cutoff.

It’s not just about earning potential, either – unemployment rates are lower among college grads, and they’re generally healthier, happier people, as Leonhardt points out.

And, there are millions of people capable of earning a degree who do not. Couple that existing population with the upcoming demographic shift among college-bound students, and it’s not hard to see that there is a market with great potential for institutions willing to think beyond the “traditional” student base.

I think these findings present an opportunity and a challenge for colleges and universities to examine their brand identity and the unique role they can play in the changing student landscape. Be honest: what do you do best and whom can you serve best? Do you market yourself accordingly?

And, for some schools it may be worth asking who you really want to make up your campus community and serve as your ambassadors to the world. Are you best represented by students who considered you a “safety school,” or students for whom you represent a golden opportunity and a fresh start on achieving all that they want in life?

We need a diverse range of institutions of higher education in this country to serve the diverse and evolving population of students capable of earning a four-year degree. From the most elite students to the students still seeking to realize their full potential, the next generation of employees – and even leaders – is knocking at the door.

Whether or not your best-fit students find your institution depends entirely upon how well you connect with them and their parents, how you differentiate yourself and how you demonstrate the return on investment for the degree you provide. If you don’t define these things for yourself, a new generation of students will do it for you.

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