Why “Safety, Target, Reach” Doesn’t Make Sense Anymore

What is Safety, Target, Reach Anyway?

Google “build a college list.” Watch a college search webinar. Read a book about how to apply to college. Guaranteed, they’ll all tell you some version of the same thing: the list of colleges you apply to should include schools that fit into each of three categories:

  1. Safety – where you have a 75% or higher chance of getting accepted
  2. Target – where you have about a 50/50 shot at getting accepted
  3. Reach – where you have a 25% or lower chance of getting accepted

Back in the day, the logic behind applying to safety, target, and reach colleges went something like this:

Since application deadlines were strict and there seemed to be more college applicants than there were spots, students should strategize when choosing the colleges to apply to so that they have the broadest possible set of options when it’s time to make a final choice.  So, apply to:

  • Safety schools so you have at least one option if all else fails
  • Target schools so you have options where you’ll be a lot like everyone else
  • Reach schools just to give yourself a shot at the big time

Seems pretty reasonable, right?

Actually . . .

But step back for a second, and this approach starts to beg a few questions. For example:

  • Why apply to lots of colleges? Seriously. Why?

When shopping for a new family sedan, would you research, test drive, and haggle with a salesperson for a Cooper Mini, a Lincoln Navigator, and everything in between?

  • Why put time, money, and emotional energy into colleges that will probably say “no”? Seriously. Why?

Will being the last person admitted to a college like that somehow change who you are or the person you can become?

It probably helps to know a little bit about the context from which this strategy emerged. First, the folks who came up with this idea made their living guiding wealthy families through the college admissions process.  For those families, sending application fees far and wide was about as financially stressful as tossing pennies into a wishing well. Second, the colleges and universities on these families’ radar were (and still are) all of the brand-name, glamor schools you’d expect. Few things make a bigger splash at the country club cocktail party than a little Ivy League name-drop.  Of course, those colleges loved the jump in applications and revenue from application fees, along with all that free marketing.  So it wasn’t long before the search, target, reach application strategy morphed into mainstream wisdom.

So What’s the Problem?

Well … a whole damn lot.

For starters, this approach doesn’t touch the issue of cost.  Instead, it presumes that cost is not an issue – whether paying for four years of college itself or paying for all of the expenses that come with trying to get into a broad range of colleges and universities.  In essence, this approach assumes that if you are gonna go down the college admissions path at all, you can afford it; all of it.  Do you know anyone for whom price simply doesn’t matter?  Me neither.

In addition, the safety, target, reach framework focuses entirely on one event: getting accepted.  It assumes that admission to a college is like the “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” moment at the end of the classic movie Casablanca.  Everything after that – getting settled in a new environment, succeeding academically, fitting in socially, graduating on time and getting a job in a profession that pays well – is all just part of the “happily ever after.”  Yeah, oops.

Oh How Things Have Changed

Today, the number one worry on the minds of college-bound students and families is affordability and value, and there’s good reason for that worry. Financial pressures are the primary reason why college students drop out.  We have two decades of college graduates permanently hobbled by student debt.  And college sticker prices make it look like college is completely unaffordable to most people, even though nine out of ten students get a discount somehow and the average real price that colleges charge students is less than half the sticker price.

The safety, target, reach framework for building a college list isn’t just a relic of days gone by.  Today, it’s downright harmful for the majority of college-bound students and families.


Safety, Target, Reach Wastes Time, Energy, and Money

Every year the college application process gets more complicated, confusing, and convoluted.  That means more time, more energy, and more stress for college applicants.  In the meantime, high school students have plenty of other things to deal with – their own schoolwork, after school stuff, maybe a job or other family responsibilities, and (let’s be honest) just trying to keep their head on straight amidst the craziness that we adults have handed them in recent years.  The safety, target, reach strategy suggests that where a person gets accepted reflects something about their worth.

“Only got into your safety school?  Oh, poor you.”

“Get accepted to your reach school?  Wow, you must have serious potential!”

Every bit of the safety, target, reach strategy tells our students to define themselves based on the decisions that giant institutions make about them.  Is that really the message that we want to send?  Is that even what we really think?

Admission Doesn’t Matter if It’s Not Affordable

This it the mic drop.  Going to college doesn’t mean squat if you don’t graduate into a life of financial stability.  Millions of recent college graduates can’t move out on their own, get married, or pursue a more gratifying profession because most (or all) of their salary goes to pay back their mountain of student debt.  And let’s not even talk about the millions of young adults with some college, no degree, and boatload of debt.  How did all of those folks end up in such dire straits?  In most cases, it’s not because there simply weren’t any college options that fit their budget.  On the contrary, these people focused on getting accepted at target and reach schools.  It wasn’t until months later that the price tag realities at target and reach schools put them into financial peril.  All this because no one ever brought up the issue of affordability and the realities that they would face AFTER college at the moment when they were deciding where to apply.

For anyone who can’t auto-pay the full sticker price of a ritzy private college from their banking app, applying to colleges without knowing which schools fit your price range is just begging for disaster.


It’s actually pretty simple:

  1. Know that the college doesn’t make successful adults; enterprising young people turn themselves into successful adults
  2. Figure out your realistic price range for college
  3. Find the colleges that fit your price range on tuitionfit.org and meritmore.com

Then explore those colleges in more depth, find the ones that you can make work best, and take control of your own future.

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