Branding, Higher Ed, and the Right Fit
Years ago, during a shopping excursion at the Tannersville Outlet Center in eastern Pennsylvania, I wandered into the Cole Haan store. I browsed the offerings a few times but found I kept returning to a pair of strappy dress sandals. Summer is nearly here, I told myself. And just look at the lovely box complete with scripted Cole Haan on the outside!
I gave in and tried them on. The straps were toward the front of the shoe, and while the heel was just the right height, those straps felt a little funny. My feet were whispering a small protest but were quickly overrun by my now nearly constant mental commentary. I do not own a pair of Cole Haans; these must be clearly superior to the wedge sandals I bought at Marshalls two seasons ago. I need a new pair, and these will morph from work to pleasure. That little pinch of the leather around my foot will yield eventually; the leather is such high quality. Stylish cousin Tracy would surely approve.
I wore those sandals exactly twice because, guess what, they pinched my feet. And then they lived in my mud room for six years because I thought, Well, they're like new. I could still wear them one day. Wrong. To this day, I wear the now-worn (and well-loved) wedges from Marshalls. They are comfy, and I don’t trip while walking.
Modern society has a thing for brands and branding, and this applies to higher education as well. This attachment to brands of higher education is fueled by the very real hopes and fears that countless parents have surrounding their students' futures. And the students have them, too (they just aren't as vocal about it!). College is an investment in the future; it inherently cradles the projection that our children will have an equivalent or better life, that there will be progress. With a college degree, especially one from a highly revered institution, more doors will open, more opportunities will knock. Right?
There is no doubt that an elite or highly selective undergraduate education, graduate education, or both increase the likelihood of influential connections, better internships, and more interviews, but as with shoes, the school needs to be a good fit for the student.
This year, one of CompassU's students narrowed down her choices to two engineering programs, South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina or Lehigh University. I thought about all of the conversations we had had over the last two years and about how best to help her decide. An article I had recently read popped into my head. I trolled my inbox and found what I was looking for.
This is an excerpt from a reaction submitted by a reader:
“I AM A FRESHMAN at a top liberal arts college at of the nations’s most selective institutions. I should be ecstatic; I did it. I somehow 'won' in the game that we call college admissions. But when I pack up in a two short weeks, it’s indefinitely… The college I currently attend is vast in both its educational and extracurricular offerings, the feeling that I am not where I am supposed to be has been strong over the past year... Raised in a generation where acceptance to a selective college is every parent’s wish and child’s goal, the idea of walking away from my spot at one is almost unheard-of… the most common question I am asked is, 'Do you think you’ll regret it?' My answer is always the same: “Maybe, I can’t tell you yet.” I ask myself that questions a lot, too, but the decision that I made is one that is truest to me and my values and that’s what matters most.”*
The name recognition, selectivity, and engineering stronghold of Lehigh loomed large in the conversations I had with the student and her mom. For the majority of students I work with, the choice would have been simple. However, in the end, and after sitting in on classes and visiting multiple times, SC Honors just felt like a better fit. She went with her intuition, after employing due diligence.
But the choices aren't over. After all, the choices she makes during the next four years will, in the end, have the greatest impact on where she lands after graduation.
*Deb Shaver “Finding the Right College,” The New York Times, April 23, 2016