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Selecting the Right Fit College is Crucial to College Success

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After months of reviewing transcripts, essays and recommendation letters, most college decision letters are finding their way into the mailboxes and inboxes of students around the country. Unfortunately, if students have not run their prospective alma maters through a similarly rigorous evaluation, their best opportunity to set themselves up for college success may have already passed.

For low-income, first generation (LIFG) students, selecting a college that is the right fit has an outsized impact on that student's trajectory for college completion. Yet, finding an accepted definition of right fit is much more difficult. The Obama Administration has attempted to address fit through the development of its "College Scorecard." While the Scorecard is a positive step toward greater postsecondary accountability, I agree with those who have said that the tool fails to assess certain critical factors.

At The SEED Foundation, our College Transition & Success (CTS) team has learned from almost ten years of experience that although a student's college readiness level is linked to college success, there are key practices at colleges/universities, which can drive college completion. The college outcomes and accountability dialogue typically focuses on graduation rates and affordability, and yes, these factors should play a role in the college search and selection process. However, what we have discovered through our work with underrepresented students is that campus-based supports are the critical piece missing from the formula and, quite honestly, the overall conversation about college success.

Consider this scenario: An LIFG student attends a college deemed highly affordable based on simple data points, but upon attending the college, the student learns that the financial aid office has limited office hours and does not have clear and accessible information about eligibility requirements and appeal processes. An LIFG student is more likely to have to worry about financial aid issues, unexpected fees, and unpaid balances every semester, and is also more likely to have to hold a job (or jobs) to make ends meet. For that student, the financial aid office is not a resource, but a barrier to success. Basic data points cannot tell the whole story, especially for LIFG students. What about academic supports? What about a diversity affairs office? What about retention systems and services?

Students, families, and counselors need a tool which also allows them to assess a college's campus-based supports. A rubric can better position students and families to make informed decisions about the quality, availability, and accessibility of a college's on-campus supports. An assessment tool encourages postsecondary institutions to reflect on the same criteria and assess the impact their support services are having on college completion for underrepresented students.

At SEED, the process of assessing campus supports is one part of a college matching tier system we have developed to work with students and families at our schools in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. We are closely examining campus-based supports which we have identified as being the most critical to the college persistence and success of LIFG students. These include academic supports (tutoring, bridge programs, academic enrichment, technology), disability supports (obtaining services and accommodations, collaboration between health, counseling, and wellness offices), social/emotional supports (counseling, mental health, multicultural affairs/diversity office), and financial aid supports (accessible information and hours, packaging designed to limit debt accumulation, designated staff, timely processing of aid). We have taken years of lessons learned from our students during their transition to and through college and have begun to figure out what best supports the journey to college completion.

The college success rates for LIFG students are simply unacceptable. Only 11 percent of LIFG students who enroll in college graduate in six years. However, at SEED, we discovered that 54 percent of our students who enrolled at colleges with stronger supports (and a focus on college completion) graduated within six years. It is clear that we must elevate the conversation about right fit and right selection. Political concentration on postsecondary accountability is as high as it's ever been. Now is the time for colleges and universities to self-evaluate their on-campus supports in order to provide an additional, critical layer of information for perspective students -- especially our highest need students.

Not all that long ago, many in the college access and higher education fields thought the best way to impact success was to get students -- especially those from underrepresented communities -- accepted to college. We all know now that there is much more to the process and that we must proactively address what really matters. Well, fit absolutely matters. Frankly, LIFG students owe it to themselves to be just as discerning when it comes to choosing where to apply as colleges and universities are in deciding who is admitted. Ultimately, it is up to us administrators, educators, and practitioners at the secondary and postsecondary levels to ensure that the information -- the most relevant information, which will lead to right fit -- is available to our most underserved students.