Do you need to rethink your first-choice college?

Tens of thousands of high school students will be receiving their college acceptance letters in April. It’s an anxious time – students, and their parents, want to believe their school holds the promise that attendance will be their “Golden Ticket” to eventual financial success.  So, if they are trying to get from “Point A” (here and now) to “Point B” (financial independence), how do they select the school that will deliver that return on their investment?

“Young people tend to quickly fall in love with a school, and parents tend to quickly wear their son’s or daughter’s acceptance as a badge of honor, or at least validation as a successful parent,’’ says David Porter, social architect, consultant to colleges and universities throughout North America and author of “The Porter Principles,” a guide to college success through social engineering, (

“Students and parents should be skeptical and consider all of what a college has offer, and how it will deliver on the implicit promise of financial independence. Which school will nurture and grow the prerequisite face-to-face problem-solving skills required to secure gainful employment and financial independence upon graduation?”

According to the most recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute, only 58 percent of the surveyed 204,000 college freshmen enrolled at their first-choice college, the lowest percentage to do so since the question was first asked in 1974.

The major factors behind the decline are cost and financial aid. A 2012 study by the research group Ipsos and the student loan giant, Sallie Mae, indicates that roughly 70 percent of families are ruling out colleges based on cost.

First choice or otherwise, Porter says students and their families should consider a variety of factors in estimating the most value to be had at a campus. Some are more relevant than others:

  • A school’s ranking: According to one of the world’s leading public intellects who regularly weighs in on academic issues, Malcom Gladwell, the national ranking a school receives doesn’t necessarily reflect the needs of individual students. Just like an expensive sports car is valued, in part, from an arbitrary, expensive price tag, so too are colleges. The various needs a young adult will have are by no means fully represented by the seven variables used by the U.S. News rankings,  run by Robert Morse. The variables include undergraduate academic reputation, financial resources and alumni giving.
  • On-Campus culture and community:  In addition to academics and the rigors thereof, a college offers (or fails to offer) a unique on-campus college experience.  Will the environment foster success (post-graduate financial independence) or, will it essentially be a few more years of high school under the guise of “college”?  Look or safe, wholesome campus venues, like a student union or a next generation dining learning commons that invites student interaction, collaboration, problem-solving, and dining 24/7.  Social architecture – the conscious design of an environment to encourage social behaviors that lead toward a goal  – is a ground-breaking approach that social architecture visionary Porter is successfully introducing to more campuses across North America every day. 
  • Parent-student understanding: Move out and stay out (because you can). Mom and dad, we want a nice home, a nice car, nice vacations, nice stuff, nice meals, etc. etc. etc.  It costs tens of thousands of dollars per year to attend most colleges. Whether or not a student assumes massive debt to follow her dreams, or a parent shares the  burden should be moot if the student can identify, pursue and secure gainful  employment upon graduation. Having debt is an enormous burden at any stage of life if you are unemployed. Choosing a school is a great opportunity for parents to lead by example on how to make a purchase decision for any “big ticket” item.  Do your homework. Buyer beware. Coach them using some of the same skills you would use to buy a house or purchase a car or invest in a new business.  

David Porter, author and social architect, is CEO and president of Porter Khouw Consulting, Inc., a foodservice master planning and design firm based in Crofton, Maryland. David has more than 40 years of hands-on food service operations and consulting experience and is a professional member of the Foodservice Consultants Society International. He is the author of “The Porter Principles, Retain & Recruit Students & Alumni, Save Millions on Dining and Stop Letting Food Service Contractors Eat Your Lunch,”