In the College Search, ROI and Fit Have to Go Hand in Hand

It’s hard to imagine a college search expert arguing that all colleges are exactly the same.  If that were the case, there wouldn’t be much need for college search guidance.  Likewise, it seems crazy to argue that life in college should have no bearing on life after college.  “What happens on campus, stays on campus” has never been a university motto, ever. 

Yet, a weird tension seems to have bubbled up between evaluating a college on the basis of fit and gauging it’s return on investment (ROI).  On one hand, folks frustrated by the financial consequences of rising college costs love the heightened emphasis on whether the money spent will pay off after graduation.  On the other hand, college search counselors recoil at the idea that four years of developmental experiences might be dismissed in favor of a crude balance sheet formula.  Too often, fans of ROI criticize the developmental argument for overemphasizing the experience.  Likewise, fans of college fit criticize the ROI argument for overemphasizing the outcome.

Common Threads

But do we really disagree here?  I don’t think so.  We know that:

  • students need to be able to sink their teeth into a wide range of learning experiences in order to maximize their growth in college 
  • students who learn and grow a lot in college often end up with more opportunities offered to them after college
  • less debt at graduation gives students more freedom to seriously consider a wider range of those opportunities.  

If we think about fit in terms of maximizing learning during college and we think about ROI in terms of maximizing opportunity after college, then fit and ROI aren’t an either/or.  They have to be a both/and.  Students can’t get the best of one without the best of the other.

So how does a dual emphasis on ROI and fit maximize the chances of success?  Let’s start by shifting the way we think about both concepts in order to match the complexity of the challenge.

Patterns of Success

Traditionally, college search experts define fit around who the student is when they start looking at colleges.  Certainly, some elements of fit need to account for who the student is in the present, especially in terms of maturity, grit, and resourcefulness.  But some elements of fit need to account for who the student wants and needs to become.  That means framing fit around the kinds of experiences that will spur growth.  I’m not suggesting you dismiss or ignore what a student might feel at age 17; but if those feelings are dominated by avoiding things that don’t seem familiar, then those feelings might be focused on the wrong kind of fit.

When Fit is focused on learning and growth, Fit becomes a key component to maximizing ROI.

With about 70% of college students graduating with student debt, it’s impossible to ignore the importance of ROI.  But unlike a typical financial transaction, a successful college graduate has invested far more than just money in order to graduate and succeed.  Successful college students invest significant time and effort in order to learn and grow during college.  Moreover, they invest emotional risk into experiences that can (and often do) make them a little uncomfortable as they develop more nuanced ways of understanding themselves and the world in which they live.  That means that a college ROI should be expected to materialize in ways that don’t translate into cold hard cash. Consequently, any metric that focuses solely on money in and money out, while important, almost certainly doesn’t capture the full picture.

Our goal for every college-bound student is:

  • During college, the student learns a lot 
  • During college, the student grows up a ton
  • After college, the student has a variety of opportunities available to them
  • After college, the student doesn’t have any constraints holding them back 

In order to hit all four bullets, ROI and Fit have to become two elements of the same formula.  Fit precedes ROI, which precedes a life well-lived.

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