11/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Palin and Obama Have in Common: The Truth About Finding the Right College the First Time

Did you know Governor Palin attended five colleges in six years (one of them twice)? Did you know that Senator Obama started his college career at Occidental College in Los Angeles before transferring to Columbia University? It might surprise you that they are both transfer students. Yet, their experience is not an anomaly. It's more the norm. On average, the US Department of Education estimates that nearly 60% of American college students attend more than one college before they graduate with a bachelor's degree.

In these tough economic times, though, making the wrong college choice can be a truly costly mistake. Not only are there more students entering college each year -- 3.2 million students are expected to graduate from high school in 2009, the highest in US history -- but, college costs continue to skyrocket. Transferring from one college to the next, while some students find it necessary, makes the college experience even more pricey. There are emotional, academic and real financial costs to transferring. If I had been Palin's or Obama's college counselor, I would have made sure that they had invested time in finding the right college for them before they applied. If they had done their college research thoroughly and properly, they would have avoided the following common college selection mistakes:

1. Applying to only reach or dream schools.
2. Applying to schools because of one great visit, or a friend or relative who attends.
3. Applying to schools based on their names or rankings.
4. Focusing solely on the location of the college.
5. Using only one source to research a school.

Senator Obama's autobiography states that he chose Occidental because he "met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii." And, according to his English Professor, Anne Howells, Senator Obama transferred to Columbia because he "wanted a bigger school and the experience of Manhattan." As you can see, he made mistakes #2 and #4.

As for Governor Palin, she admits that she left the University of Hawaii-Hilo (after a very brief stint, of which the university has no record) to attend Hawaii Pacific University because of the weather. She wasn't aware that the University of Hawaii-Hilo was situated on the rainy side of the Big Island. According to her biography, Governor Palin soon realized that, despite which university she attended in Hawaii, it was always warm. She missed the change of the seasons and, consequently, decided to move stateside to North Idaho College before transferring to the University of Idaho, followed by Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna College and ending with three semesters at University of Idaho. She committed mistakes #4 and #5. If only both Senator Obama and Governor Palin had been made to consider their future college experiences in detail (my "Imagining I'm There" exercises would have helped them realize that their needs would not be met at their respective first colleges). A young Sarah Louise Heath (as Governor Palin was known) would have realized that there is no Hunting Club at either of the first two universities she attended. A young Barry Obama (as he was called back then) would have realized that a small liberal arts college might, in fact, be too small to suit his social needs.

I can only imagine the anxiety their parents went through during their college years. I can see the Governor's father's frustration in buying another plane ticket to shuttle his daughter from Hawaii to Idaho, then to Alaska and back to Idaho, where she finally earned her bachelor's degree. I'm sure the mental anguish that Senator Obama's grandparents felt was great when he decided that he needed to go even farther away to fulfill his college dreams.

The college search process requires an investment in time. It should not be taken lightly. With ample research, self-evaluation, and the help of an expert, I am confident that students can find several colleges that meet their needs. This way, regardless of where they enroll, they can invest time in building relationships with students and faculty, while becoming a significant part of one school's community... and that's the truth of finding the right college on the first try.