Expanding the Pathways Beyond a Narrow Set of Top Colleges

Summer 2024

By Michael B. Horn

This article appeared as "A Matter of Course" in the Summer 2024 issue of Independent School.

For years, many parents’ core reason for sending their children to independent schools has been to help them get into one of a select set of colleges and fulfill their potential. Many independent schools have, in turn, been happy to send the message—subtly or not—that they are the right place to help accomplish these goals.

Meanwhile, as Bob Moesta and I found while doing research for Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, many students have no underlying sense of why they’re going to college—other than it being another box to check and the next logical step on their journey. In surveys—like the widely known CIRP Freshman Survey, the Higher Education Research Institute’s annual survey of students at four-year colleges and universities—students increasingly cite “to get a good job” as one of the top reasons for going to college. Under the surface, however, students have little sense of what jobs and careers are even possible and no concrete understanding of how college might help.

This disconnect between the importance of college and a lack of understanding of how it can tangibly help is becoming more visible. As list tuition prices at colleges have soared, parents have increasingly wondered if college is the right next step. They want to see a clear return on the investment. And the campus controversies that have been making national news over the past year have thrown more heat on a smoldering fire.

These conversations and questions about the value of college are taking place in cities and suburbs across the country—from Palo Alto, California, to Lexington, Massachusetts—where children have long been expected to go to prestigious colleges. And it raises the question: What do changing perspectives about the value of college mean for independent schools? As society’s views of higher education are in flux, must independent schools adapt? And if so, how?

The Changing Nature of Exclusive Higher Ed

Is college worth it? More people are asking this and other questions about college. Public confidence has fallen precipitously. In 2015, 57% of Americans had “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in higher education, according to Gallup. By 2023, that number had fallen to 36%. Fewer high school graduates are going to college as well. Whereas roughly 69% of graduates enrolled directly after high school in 2018, that number had dropped to 62% in the fall of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When parents think about the return on investment, much of what they hear about is the $1.7 trillion in student debt and whether the government should forgive it because of how large it’s grown. They read about spiraling tuition and room and board—more than $70,000 at institutions like Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College, and for out-of-state students at the University of Michigan. And parents see lackluster outcomes on average. Roughly 38% of students don’t graduate within six years, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. For those who do, more than half are underemployed—or in a job that doesn’t require a degree—a year after graduation, and 45% remain so five and 10 years out, according to the Burning Glass Institute and Strada Education Foundation. What’s more, there are signs that the college income premium is eroding—meaning that the net wealth of a college graduate compared to that of a high school graduate is falling. All of this has made college increasingly feel like a gamble.

Yet these signs mask the nuance—and a different kind of turbulence—below the surface. When we try to understand consumer behavior, there’s an important saying: Watch what people do, not what they say. In other words, just because people are complaining about something, doesn’t mean they are changing their behavior.

If you look not at the college picture across all 4,000 institutions in America but focus instead on the highly ranked colleges and universities, things look different. While demand for colleges writ large has fallen, there’s arguably never been more demand for highly ranked schools, which is creating a different kind of anxiety.

For parents and schools, perhaps the most jarring change in America’s selective colleges and universities over the past generation is in the admission numbers. In 1990, just 9% of students applied to seven or more colleges, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. By 2016, fueled in part by the Common App’s move online in 1998, 35% did. The ease of applying has resulted in a huge increase in applications to selective colleges and universities—and a corresponding nosedive in acceptance rates.

Take University of California, Los Angeles, for example. In 2000, 37,791 students applied to UCLA for a class of 4,203. Just 23 years later, this past fall the university received almost 146,000 applicants from prospective freshmen for an enrolled class of 6,585 students. The admit rate fell from 29% to 9%. In 2000, Yale University received 12,887 applications for a class of 1,352 students. In fall 2023, it received 57,465 applications for a class of roughly 1,550 students. The admit rate has fallen from 16.2% for freshmen entering in 2000 to 3.7% for the 2024 freshman class.

That’s a familiar scenario at most selective schools. Class sizes have stayed flat or inched up while applications have exploded. As a result, many students, parents, and independent schools feel lost as admission seemingly plays out like a random lottery. Applicants who may have waltzed in to a specific school a generation ago have no sense of their odds today. 

And that’s before you overlay the constantly shifting policies around standardized tests. Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, most highly selective colleges have moved to test-optional policies, which has left families wondering whether they should submit test scores. On top of that, several brand-name schools are starting to shift back—MIT, Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown, foremost among them, now require applicants to submit test scores.

But the numbers and the rapidly changing application landscape mask other realities. As John Katzman, founder of education companies such as Noodle and The Princeton Review, says in Choosing College, although it is harder than ever to get into a specific top 10 school, collectively speaking, it’s statistically easier to get into one of the top 50 schools today than it was 30 years ago. What’s more, only 59 colleges accept fewer than 25% of applicants.

Although the demand for each highly selective school and the confusion over how to get in have perhaps never been higher, there aren’t that many highly selective schools. Well-known flagship universities like The Ohio State University, University of Florida, and The University of Texas accept more than 25% of applicants, as do private colleges like Ithaca, Reed, and Occidental.

All of this has further reinforced the theory that if college is the goal and combatting rising prices is important, students are best off applying to as many schools as possible to find the best school at the best price. This feeling of randomness has also reinforced a sense among independent schools that even though colleges love to evaluate prospective students in the context of schools that are known to them, their abilities to give students clear guidance on which colleges are “sure things” or “good fits” are far less certain than they’ve ever been. 

Navigating Through the Chaos 

How can independent schools insulate themselves—and the students and families they serve—to thrive in a world of shifting sands?

The secret may be in that word “thrive.” Because far too many teens aren’t thriving right now. Much has been written about the mental health challenges students are facing and the lack of resilience among far too many students. And numerous studies have made the connection between—and demonstrated the importance of—developing a sense of purpose and becoming more resilient and happy. Simply put, when your purpose is clear, it’s far easier to work through the bumps and ditches in the road.

The data we gathered for Choosing College suggest that far too many students are applying to and enrolling in college without a sense of purpose. For some students, the point of going to college is for its own sake—it’s what they’ve been taught they should do. There’s no deeper sense of meaning other than the excitement of living in a brick-and-mortar college, belonging to a place with a great reputation, and taking the next logical step—or the only step—they’ve been told is possible. Still others are going to satisfy certain people in their life. They are going through the motions and checking the box that others—parents, teachers, counselors, friends—expect them to.

Given all the turmoil around higher ed, the decision to enroll in college in the absence of a deeper sense of purpose isn’t a formula for success. To help students, schools need to start with a focus on purpose. And by doing so, schools will help students understand that there are a variety of pathways to accomplishing that purpose, not just through the most elite colleges.

Finding Purpose

Many schools talk about supporting students in developing a sense of purpose, but making purpose a priority would be a departure. Although schools and their college counselors are well-positioned to help students navigate the road to college, they aren’t equipped to help students think through what they might do with a degree, what other pathways they might want to explore, and how to connect all of that to a budding purpose.

Helping students build a sense of purpose can start much earlier than high school. Jean Eddy, the president and CEO of American Student Assistance, an education nonprofit, has made it her mission to help students learn, as early as middle school, about all the different careers they might have and what future options and pathways can loop into those careers. Her idea isn’t for students to know what they want to be when they grow up. The world of careers is far too fluid for that to be a useful question. Nor does one’s career necessarily connect to one’s purpose. Eddy’s work is instead designed to help students understand the sheer variety of ways they can contribute to the world beyond the often-narrow view of what their parents and peers’ parents do.

By considering how these possible pursuits connect to their own strengths and passions, students can start to develop purpose. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, discovery of purpose can be accomplished “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Or as IDEO’s Purpose Project frames it, it’s worth revisiting a series of questions over time: What are you doing today? What do you like doing? What can you do so that you can get more clarity around what drives you, what you like, and what you don’t?

In developing a keener sense of all the ways they can contribute to the world, students not only can start to develop a sense of purpose, but they can also gain an appreciation for the fact that life isn’t a race to be won based on a narrow set of metrics like test scores and admittance to top colleges on ranking lists. The opposite is arguably true. We become more valuable by differentiating ourselves and trying to develop our unique blend of strengths and interests.

This can then allow students to see that there are a variety of academic and career opportunities—not one pathway through a narrow set of top colleges. The race to be won isn’t getting into the best school for its own sake. It’s to best match one’s pathway to one’s purpose, passions, and strengths.

Navigating Novel Options

The task then for schools is to move away from the sole obsession with college. Connecting students to a variety of careers could be more fruitful. Not only will it help students better understand why they are going to college, but it will also insulate independent schools in case college becomes a less popular path in the future.

This path can also take the pressure off the college counselors and educators from learning all the myriad ways individuals can contribute to society post-high school. They can continue to do what they know best, and schools can bring a variety of professionals representing different pursuits and pathways into schools—through real-world projects, explorations, simulations, and more. Over time, students can reflect on what they’ve learned and how it matches up with their own strengths and what brings them energy.

By doing that, schools will better prepare students for the fast-changing nature of knowledge, skills, and careers today, which calls for academic learning that is much more tightly integrated with real work experience. With a developed sense of purpose, students will be increasingly able to focus on the right pathway for them—not the right option on average. And that means focusing on “fit.”

Fit is currently a difficult concept when it comes to college. As Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun shared during an episode of the Future U. podcast, “Higher education is diverse but not differentiated.” Most colleges try to be one-size-fits-all places that look like each other rather than distinguishing themselves and leaning into their strengths.

As a result, asking an 18-year-old to “find a college that fits” is difficult given how many colleges seem similar. Far better than focusing on fit is eliminating the schools that don’t fit. This leans into the neuroscience research that suggests that to facilitate better decisions, eliminating the worst choice is a better first step than picking the best one. For that reason, it’s often easier for individuals to name what they don’t want rather than identify what they do. If, for example, an informed student isn’t comfortable with a college’s location, demographics, campus life, size, extracurricular activities, academics, or mission, that’s a warning sign to avoid that school and others that share that characteristic. 

By eliminating what students don’t want—a far easier task—they can find the things they do want. And that might not always be college. For example, at the New England Innovation Academy (MA), a new independent school, the college counselor refers to herself as the “Director of What Comes Next.” This takes into account that, yes, many students are going on to college after they graduate. But many others are taking gap years—what I call “discovery years”—to help them learn more about themselves and develop that missing sense of purpose. And still others are starting to dip their toes into college alternatives like apprenticeships that are emerging outside of the trades in the technology and health care fields.

Ultimately independent schools probably shouldn’t become career and technical programs. They aren’t built for that world. And that’s not what parents want them to do for students. But independent schools should be in the business of helping students build a sense of purpose. That way, as students leave their campuses, they will have a strong compass guiding them in the choices they’ll make—not just in going to college, but in navigating the experience itself and all that’s beyond. Because life, society, college, and careers are all changing rapidly right now, students need something more enduring from schools—all the resilience and sense of self they can muster. 

Michael B. Horn

Michael B. Horn is the cofounder and distinguished fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank; coauthor of Choosing College; and cohost of the Future U. podcast. He is a former NAIS trustee.