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When we were in high school we didn’t receive much guidance on the college search, application and choice process. People told us, “Go to college! Make sure you apply!” But, no one ever said, “Go to college and graduate in four years, without tons of debt!” As College Match advisers, we now know that helping students find and enroll in colleges that are a strong academic match and a good fit can increase the likelihood that a student will graduate on time and without significant debt.

For the past three years, MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, has operated and evaluated the College Match Program in several Chicago public schools. The program is designed to build awareness of “match” colleges and deliver crucial information about the application process to help moderately- and high-achieving, low-income students and their parents make informed decisions about college enrollment. Many of the students we work with are on track to becoming the first in their families to enroll in college.

Finding Your College Match

Applying to college with a focus on finding your best “match” requires the consideration of many factors. A match approach involves identifying colleges that correspond with a student’s academic qualifications and that are a good “fit” based on a student’s specific academic, social and financial needs. This approach also requires engaging students and parents/guardians in discussions of match and fit early and often throughout the college application process to ensure that they share the same vision about going to college. Such an inclusive approach is important when navigating what can be a complicated college search, application and choice process for families.

In our role as College Match advisers, we help low-income and first-generation students identify their best match in various ways.

Understanding College Selectivity

First, we help students understand college selectivity.

After completing college entrance exams such as the ACT, each student is assigned a college selectivity category–highly selective, very selective, selective, somewhat selective or nonselective–based on their academic ability as reflected in their standardized test score and their unweighted grade point average or class rank. After students have identified their selectivity level according to the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges Admissions Competitiveness Index, we advise students to apply to a mix of colleges.

We suggest students apply to at least five “match,” two “safety” and two “reach” colleges.

  • “Match” colleges are those at which the student’s academic credentials fall within or exceed the college’s range for average freshmen.
  • “Safety” colleges are those at which the student’s academic credentials fall above the college’s range for average freshmen.
  • “Reach” colleges, on the other hand, are those at which the student’s academic credentials fall below the college’s range for average freshmen.

Researching Retention and Graduation Rates

Second, we highlight the importance of researching a college’s student retention and graduation rates.

This information is something that is not generally taken into consideration when students begin their college search. But, it is particularly important because these rates are good predictors of college completion. In our experience, colleges with high retention and graduation rates also provide a range of valuable resources, such as funding for school supplies or mentorship programs, which can ease a student’s transition to college and help them become better acclimated on campus.

Looking at Possible Matches

Finally, we consult a list of four-year colleges in the Great Lakes Region that are possible matches for students participating in the program. (This list is provided by the College Match Program.)

The list includes various types of information to be considered when identifying a good match: for example, the college’s selectivity level, student retention and graduation rates, the percentage of students receiving financial aid and distance from Chicago.

Students reading this blog are encouraged to begin their college search in a similar way: by identifying colleges that match their level of academic selectivity and that boast high retention and graduation rates. Students can then narrow their search according to their specific needs such as the amount of financial aid the college provides and the availability of specific majors.

In our experience, considering these match factors when conducting a college search will yield better outcomes in the long run.

Finding Your College Fit

In addition, “fit” should play a critical role in the college selection process.

Academic Fit

Though coursework is important, college is so much more than just going to class every day. There are many other opportunities to enhance your education, build connections and develop transferable skills. When you’re researching prospective schools, find out if they offer educational opportunities like internships and/or externships, study abroad programs and combined bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, which can enrich your academic experience.

For instance, if you aspire to go to graduate school in the sciences, social sciences or humanities, it is extremely important to gain undergraduate research experience. Look into programs like the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program which are specifically for first-generation and underrepresented students. This program and others like it will give you the opportunity to conduct an independent research project under the guidance of a professor while in college, build a strong support network and even travel to conferences to present your research. All of these experiences will strengthen your graduate school application and make you a better candidate.

Social Fit

While too much partying can definitely get you in trouble, don’t underestimate the importance of social fit when selecting a college. Social opportunities–or lack thereof–can really determine whether your college experience will be enjoyable … or miserable. Many colleges have a “Quad Day” or extracurricular activity fair within the first few days of school. This is a great opportunity to sign up for clubs, Greek letter organizations and intramural sports, and to meet other students who share similar interests. Other students tend to be the most welcoming and open to meeting new people at this time and you may develop lasting friendships by attending these events.

Financial Fit

Cost seems to be the most important factor for both students and their parents when selecting a college. Yes, college is very expensive, but financial aid is available to help you pay for it. The first step in the process is to apply for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) on January 1 (or as soon after January 1 as possible) of your senior year in high school. This one FREE application makes you eligible for federal, state and institutional funds if you qualify.

Some colleges and private organizations also offer scholarships and grants specifically for first-generation college students. Research these opportunities on the Internet and speak with the Financial Aid Offices (FAOs) at the colleges that interest you to find out what aid may be available to you.

For more information and advice on college match, read the MDRC’s September 2013 Policy Brief on College Match.