By Randi C. Heathman
I ask each new client family the same question when they join my practice: “How will you define success in the college process?”
Typically, they all say the same thing: Their goal is to find a “good” college.
Now obviously I don’t expect anyone to say they’d like to attend a bad college, but the problem with such a broad statement is that it brings up a far larger question:
Good for whom?
“Good” is an extremely malleable concept when it comes to colleges and universities; what’s “good” in the estimation of one student might be a non-starter for another. It’s like buying a horse – what makes a good hunter is far from the same thing that makes a good dressage horse or a good reiner. As such, “good” isn’t good enough as a description for something this important.
Is a student looking for a school that’s good for budding researchers? A school with good athletic teams? One with great food and housing options in an exciting location? Good for future nurses or engineers? Good at giving scholarships and financial aid? Good at being the alma mater of a favorite television character? (I’m looking at you, Rory Gilmore and Andy Bernard.) Good rankings in U.S. News & World Report? Good mascot? Good part of the country for skiers?
Typically, I find that when the term “good” is applied to colleges or universities, families usually use it in relation to one or more of the following:
When determining the value of a “good” college, one of the most common reputational factors people consider is an institution’s U.S. News rankings and/or its overall admission rate for undergraduate applicants. Through this lens, a highly ranked school with a low admission rate for applicants is therefore considered a good school by consumers because of its high degree of exclusivity – but bear in mind that this profile doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of a college’s educational experience.
If one of the ranking factors that boosts the school to the top of the list is the amount of research dollars it spends annually – but you’re a high school student who doesn’t want to pursue research (perhaps you’re an artist or you want to be an elementary school teacher), is such a school a good fit for you? Will the ability to do a lot of research directly impact your undergraduate experience?
And what if the research opportunities are restricted to graduate students? What if the highly-trained professors with fancy publications on their CVs only work with graduate students and your undergraduate classes will all be taught by adjunct faculty and teaching assistants? Is your particular educational experience going to live up to those high rankings in this scenario? These are the questions to ask when determining what “good” means for an individual student at a particular college because “good” should directly correlate to the student’s goals, interests, and learning style.
Some families determine that a “good” college is one with highly successful alumni. (Since the majority of students attend college with the goal of finding a career they’ll excel in, this strategy seems logical.) But what benchmarks categorize alumni success? Are students interested in particular career fields? In graduate school matriculations? In mid-career earnings?
For some students, it might make sense to pursue an Ivy League education in order to leverage post-graduate opportunities through their impressive alumni networks. But with admission rates below five percent annually for these schools, what does this mean for the vast majority of students who won’t be selected for admission? Are their future options limited if they attend a college that accepts more of its applicants each year?
Though Ivy League graduates are often fast-tracked into unique opportunities, there are also many Fortune 500 CEOs whose undergraduate degrees were earned at state public universities, including Purdue University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Kansas.
For future physicians, it’s worth noting that 57 percent of the new students in the Yale University Medical School class of 2026 graduated from less selective undergraduate institutions of all shapes and sizes, including Kalamazoo College, Georgia State University, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and Sewanee – The University of the South.
Do graduates of highly selective, prominent colleges have certain advantages that alumni of other schools don’t? Often they do. But studies also consistently show that successful university alumni begin as successful students – and more recent research has begun to ask if Ivy League alumni are successful because of their degrees or if perhaps they’re positioned for post-graduate success before they’re even admitted (by virtue of where they go to high school, their parents’ occupations, etc.).
How can we objectively measure a “good” alumni network from any college or university then?
If a student is able to make connections and be presented with the opportunities that will allow him or her to pursue their goals after graduation, we must ultimately consider the college to be “good” in that respect. What companies come to campus to recruit new hires? What are the placement rates to graduate and professional school (and where do they matriculate to)? What career development structures are in place to help students find and pursue future jobs?
Since the least useful college degree is the one that isn’t completed, students should focus on their long-term goals and how they might achieve them at particular colleges in order to ensure a successful outcome wherever they enroll.
Because I work primarily with prospective collegiate equestrians, my clients often use the term “good college” to refer to their desired experience as competitive varsity athletes. As with the classroom and campus experience, however, there are a wide variety of options in this area as well.
Is a “good” equestrian college one with a full varsity experience for riders? And is that varsity experience in the NCEA or the IHSA? (Both organizations offer these options.) Is it one where students get the most opportunities to compete for their school? One where the team has strong camaraderie and members become lifelong friends? Does the student want an athletic scholarship? Can the student continue competing in regular horse shows during the school year and/or over the summer break?
No two students will answer those questions in the same way, so a student whose goal is obtaining a riding scholarship will define a “good” college for their riding career in a completely different way than the student who wants a lot of hands-on experience in the barn to bolster their applications to veterinary school. Both students need to spend time interacting with their prospective colleges to determine what opportunities will be available to them as first-year students, as an upperclassmen, etc.; they’ll need to visit the campuses and equestrian centers, talk with coaching staff, students, and faculty, and ask questions specific to their goals and interests.
Before identifying specific colleges, however, families searching for a “good” equestrian team/program also need to learn about the different opportunities, advantages, and disadvantages that accompany competing in the NCEA, in varsity or club IHSA, or through other intercollegiate riding organizations in order to understand what the student’s experience will be in each. Varsity programs aren’t the best fit for every student and some may achieve their goal of making a roster but don’t show for four years because other riders are stronger. Other students may eschew club opportunities because they don’t think they’ll get enough competition opportunities and wind up missing out on the chance not only to compete, but to put an important leadership role on their resume when it comes time to apply for their first job out of college. For all students, the ability to balance their academic requirements with time spent in the saddle is of the utmost importance, so families should look critically at each program and list the pros and cons of each opportunity the student is presented with.
Ultimately, as parents and students set out on their search for a “good” college, everyone must first ascertain their own personal definition of what “good” means to them. Have conversations, take notes (and keep taking notes!), ask trusted family, friends, teachers, and trainers for their insights, and only after mapping out exactly what a good college looks like through their own personal lens will students and parents be able to enter the marketplace and successfully select not just a “good” school, but a great one.
The Equestrian College Advisor is Randi C. Heathman, an educational consultant with over a decade of experience in higher education and a lifetime of involvement with equestrian sports. Heathman holds a B.A. in English and has received her M.A. in communication studies. She honed her craft as senior assistant director of admission at Albion College (Albion, Michigan) while working extensively with their equestrian program as both a recruiter and as a mentor to the riders on the team, traveling to their shows and advising the campus equestrian club.
This Post Brought to You by:
The Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association (PCHA)
The Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association (PCHA), a non-profit corporation, has as its main purpose the promotion and development of the sport of horse showing, primarily in the Hunter/Jumper, Western and Reining disciplines. These objectives are accomplished by setting the standards for showing on the West Coast and approving shows that meet these criteria.
Founded in 1946, the Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association promotes the interests of owners and exhibitors, cooperates with exhibitors, officials, and management of competition, publicizes and advertises PCHA sanctioned shows, encourages and assists owners, exhibitors, and breeders of horses to maintain, develop and improve the quality of horses of the Hunter, Jumper, Western and Reining divisions.