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Guide your 12th Grader: Choosing a College

If your teen’s college acceptance letters have started to come in, your family may be trying to decide between several good options. Normally we talk about choice based on saving costs or debt potential, but in today’s post, I’m bringing you some data that gives you one more thing to watch out for: “reach” colleges.

Reach Colleges

Simply put, when your student applies to colleges, we are hoping for admissions acceptance.

85% of all colleges are variations of “open enrollment” which is to say that all eligible applicants are admitted. This category is HUGE, so I often write that “getting into college is easier than getting out.” In fact, most people have little to no experience with the 85% of colleges on this list and instead opt to focus on the “other” list.

In this list, which represents the 15% of all colleges and universities, you do have to fight for a seat at the table. In this category, admissions is not guaranteed, and it may be competitive. Of the tippy top, it is downright brutal, and hyper selective.

The flaw in our assumption is that we should choose the most selective school our students can get into. These schools are sometimes called “reach” colleges because they may be just a bit out of reach, so it is this category where students sit and hope for a lucky break.

Getting Out

I’m always shocked that we focus so intently on admissions while ignoring the data on completion. In fact most students do NOT get out of college, and that’s been true since the 1950’s. There will always be eager students who hope to beat the odds, but getting out is HARD. As a national average, the college completion rates are about 50%. Again, it’s been that way since the 1950’s so this isn’t new! Homeschooling for College Credit helps mitigate risk by getting our kids through some of those early classes, demonstrating proof of concept, bringing parents into the process, and managing costs that might otherwise derail a student’s progress… but there’s one more piece in the puzzle.

Top 1/3, Middle 1/3, Bottom 1/3

As you compare colleges, look carefully at where your teen fits among the incoming class. If the college publishes a “freshman statistics” page, use that, if not, check a guide like US News and World Reports to pull numbers. Here is an example of where a student with a 1360 SAT score. He is clearly in the top 1/3 of all SAT test takers, and assuming a comparable GPA, he is probably in the top 1/3 for GPA as well.

This is an example of a student who will get into a “good” college.

But that’s not the whole story. You have to look at the college’s incoming class. Colleges where your student falls in the bottom 1/3 of the incoming class will change his likelihood of success. Using this sample student, if he applied to the college below, he would be in the bottom 1/3 of applicants.

This is a screenshot of a state flagship public university for 2023:

A student with a 1360 SAT is *not in the top 1/3, or even in the middle 1/3, the student is in the bottom 1/3. We call that a “reach” college, because admissions may be just out of reach. If the student gets accepted at this “good” college, should he go? Most people say “yes” but I want you to reconsider after watching this video.

The bottom 1/3


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

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