Choosing the Right College? Find Your Passion Fit First

Opinion | Higher Education

Choosing the Right College? Find Your Passion Fit First

By Mike Marriner and Stephen M. Smith     Nov 29, 2015

Choosing the Right College? Find Your Passion Fit First

It’s the peak of college application season for high school seniors and their families. A flurry of questions and decisions presents itself: How many and which schools to apply? What can we afford? How do we craft the perfect application?

Nearly 3.3 million students are expected to graduate from high school this year, and it’s anticipated that more than 2.1 million of them will enroll in college directly after high school. Sadly, based on current trends, only 29 percent of them will complete a two-year degree within four years and only 59 percent receive their bachelor’s degree within six.

Research suggests that for many students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, the likelihood of graduating from college is heavily influenced by whether the institution they choose is a good match in the first place.

Typically, we define “match” by metrics like GPA, SAT scores, or “academic fit.” But matching is about much more than these numbers. It also includes things like school culture, size, distance from home, cost, and whether the college aligns with a student’s future aspirations.

Deciding which school will provide the launch pad for a student’s career and personal goals has to start with an exploration of career interests, hopes, and dreams. Academic fit isn’t just about qualifications—it’s about aspirations: the areas of study, career interests, and opportunities for real-world preparation that will motivate a student throughout the college experience. Yet, when asked to indicate their planned college course of study, only 36 percent of ACT test takers chose majors that fit with their stated interests—and 32 percent chose majors that were a poor fit with their interests.

Studies show that a student’s major has a big influence on his or her engagement in college, and on the likelihood of graduating. If we want to reach the White House’s goal of increasing the number of college graduates by 50 percent by 2020, then cracking the nut on college match matters—and helping students find their area of study is a critical piece to addressing the “match gap.”

So how can families and schools best support students as they prepare for postsecondary education?

It starts with creating opportunities for self-discovery and exploration. In many schools, educators are strapped for time and school counselors face large student-to-advisor ratios. There is less time for students to explore who they are, what they’re interested in, and what’s possible in tomorrow’s economy—where many of the jobs of the future have yet to be invented.

In our work with millions of teenagers and college students, we’ve found that students often have a one-dimensional view of college and careers. They think of specific jobs like veterinarian, lawyer, firefighter. But what many students don’t realize is that careers are often a mashup of people’s interests. For example, a hotel architect may be someone who loves travel, excelled at math, and is a big-picture thinker. A user interface designer may be an outgoing people-person who always doodled in class. And different college experiences have different results in preparing students to pursue a “mashup” approach.

Engaging students in effective planning for college and career is about translating interests into objectives and turning passions into pursuits. But schools are working on this challenge by taking advantage of new technologies that make exploration and personalization possible and scalable.

Consider the case of Thomas Viaduct Middle School in Howard County, Maryland, where students leverage sophisticated analytics and digital media to develop more personalized college and career plans. Students are using digital tools to identify strengths and talents, and develop a practical framework to answer tough questions like “What types of things do you love to do?” or “What do you like to learn about?”

In districts like Adams 12 in Colorado, students are exploring those same questions through the stories of professionals who have followed their interests to find fulfilling careers. Students have access to online interviews and videos with a diverse set of professionals, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who share how their mashup of interests and formal education led to their careers. Careers like that of Uncharted Play CEO Jessica Matthews, who combined her interests in technology and science to invent a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into power that can light a lamp for children where electricity is unreliable. Or National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin, who pursued his dual loves of art and action sports to become a world-class mountain climber and photographer. Teachers assign students “homework,” like getting out in their communities to interview local leaders about their own paths. Students even participate in internships that allow them to explore new fields firsthand.

It’s this kind of self-discovery that puts students on track to understand what they want to be before they tackle how they get there. When students are given the space and resources for self-discovery and exploration, they can confidently focus on finding schools and majors that match the interests they’ve uncovered.

As policymakers, researchers, and college advocates continue to shine a spotlight on college attainment, let’s equip middle schools and high schools with the tools and time to prepare their students for real success at a right-fit school that can help launch them into right-fit careers.

Mike Marriner is the Director and Co-founder of Roadtrip Nation. Stephen M. Smith is President of Advising and Admissions Solutions at Hobsons.

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