The Hazards of Dreaming About Colleges

This is an excerpt of a post that I wrote for my college blog at CBS MoneyWatch last week after attending the biggest annual college fair in San Diego. You can read the entire post here:

What’s Wrong With America’s Dream Colleges

When I looked at The Princeton Review’s newly released lists of America’s most popular dream colleges, Iimmediately saw a problem.
Before I explain why, take a look at the dream colleges that teenagers and parents cited most often.

Teenagers’ Dream Colleges

  1. Stanford University
  2. Harvard University
  3. New York University
  4. Princeton University
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  6. Yale University
  7. UCLA
  8. University of Pennsylvania
  9. University of Southern California
  10. University of California, Berkeley.

Parents’  Dream Colleges

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Princeton University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Yale University
  6. Duke University
  7. Brown University
  8. New York University
  9. University of Notre Dame
  10. Northwestern University

What Wrong with the Dream School Lists

I find these lists troubling and here’s why: I’d argue that the responses show a serious lack of imagination and downright laziness.
It’s easy to mention Ivy League schools when a pollster asks about dream colleges because everybody knows they are prestigious. It’s also easy to include NYU as a dream school because how cool would it be to attend college in New York City? And lots of teenagers would love to attend college on the West Coast where it offers beaches, sunshine and lots of winning sports teams.
However, if I gave teens and parents a quiz that simply asked them to name just five things about their dream schools that makes these institutions smart academic choices, I bet the vast majority of people would flunk.

Picking Colleges the Wrong Way

Unfortunately, many families select schools without much thought. I find this strange since parents and their children have essentially spent 18 years getting ready for college and yet when they have to finally make important decisions they punt.
Children add dream schools to their list because they’d look good on a sweatshirt, but in reality they know very little about these schools, which the vast majority of them aren’t going to get into anyway.  Instead these teens take the path of least resistance. Most end up going to schools 50 to 100 miles away without exploring other options.
It’s a shame that parents and teens don’t put more effort into developing a college list since there are so many wonderful colleges scattered across the country with excellent programs that people don’t even know exist.
Click here and you’ll see some of the interesting schools I discovered at the college fair.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller. She also writes a college blog for CBS MoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

Read more college posts:

The Nation’s 15 Richest and Stingiest Colleges
Making the Most of a College Campus Tour


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  1. Wow, have I been waiting for a post like this. “Dream School” is a term that didn’t even exist when i went to NYU in 1996. I think you are being too kind; people are absolutely insane when it comes to their method for choosing a school, and deciding to go to school at all. You’d never buy a house or car using the kind of illogical and groundless thought process that accompanies choosing college.
    The simplest question that is rarely asked by either parents or students is this: will my degree have any discernible valuable upon graduation? It’s amazing that people will take out $100K in loans without ever examining what is going to happen after.
    I applaud you for calling this into question. I urge you to go further and encourage people to actually examine the new landscape of the economy in 2011, and ask “is college necessary at all?” Personally, I have not found one opportunity or advantage from having a degree from NYU. All of my current success is from learning about marketing and website design on my own, and entrepreneurship. It’s time we stop teaching young people to try and score good grades to try and get approval to get a good job, but rather teach them to be leaders to create jobs for tomorrow. And that is a skill that, in my experience, comes through going out into the world, self-education, but rarely though sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor. And this is coming from a guy who graduated in 3.5 years with honors.
    Thanks for the opportunity to express my opinion Lynn.

    1. Seth,
      Thanks for your thoughts on “dream schools.” I completely agree when you say: “It’s amazing that people will take out $100k in loans without ever examining what is going to happen after.”
      You also raise a provocative question regarding whether college is necessary. For self-starting entrepreneurs, it might not be necessary, but there aren’t many people in that category. At least that’s my opinion.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy