Rosen: Think Backward About Your College Choice

Everyone's college goal is not the same. For some students it's about experiencing college life—football games, intellectual conversations, living on campus, being away from home for the first time. For others, it's about the desire to learn about a particular area—be it art history or advanced mathematics. And for others still, it's a means to an end—a path toward a career. Many students give too little thought to what it is they really want out of college, and what kind of university can best meet their needs. And few consider whether colleges are able to meet their end of the bargain.

Basing your college choice on a desired outcome can be a constructive way to approach the college-applications process. At some schools, curriculum developers actually use a process known as "backward design" to create courses by starting from the desired outcome. In other words, the curriculum is shaped and coursework selected on the basis of how well it permits a student to achieve their desired outcome. You can use this type of back-ward-design model in thinking about the college-admissions process as well. Rather than putting the emphasis on where you'd like to be next year, focus on where you'd like to be at the conclusion of your postsecondary program. What are the longer-term results you want to accomplish? Be sure the college you choose can deliver those results for you.

Never has the college experience taken on as many variations as it does today. There are still grassy quads filled with undergraduates, freshly armed with high-school diplomas. However, fewer than 3 million of America's 17 million registered college students fit the classic profile of an 18- to 22-year-old enrolled full time in a four-year school. Forty percent of today's postsecondary students attend college part time, go to two-year schools, and are 25 years or older. College is accessible to more people than ever before, including not only traditional students but also active-duty military personnel and adult learners (many of them midway through their careers). And they are going not just to traditional private or state universities but also to private, nontraditional colleges, online universities, career schools, and community colleges. Studies can take place in the classroom or online, at the university or at affiliated institutions abroad. Students can attend full time or part time. They can enroll in two- or four-year programs or extend their degree work over a longer term to fit their own career and lifestyle needs.

This is all evidence that students are not just assessing colleges based on whether they see themselves fitting in but are beginning to judge how well the schools fit their own personal needs and life circumstances. This sort of reexamination on the part of students could not come at a better time. Postsecondary education has never been more important for Americans, who must now compete in a global information economy. The United States was once the world leader in higher-education attainment. Today it has slipped to 11th place. President Barack Obama has called on Americans to commit to at least one year of higher education or career train-ing with the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Our country's need for talented individuals who can propel our economy transcends any political agenda. There are real consequences for our nation if we fail to offer a diverse set of higher-education alternatives that fit the equally diverse needs of our population. But so far, colleges and universities are responding with greater accessibility to broader groups of Americans. Students today have access to more flexibility in coursework and degree programs to accommodate all types of academic interests, learning styles, backgrounds, and experience.

Remember that college is a way station along the continuum of lifelong learning. It can be a single point in your journey or a place to return to at periodic intervals. Never has the choice in postsecondary education been so diverse, nor has the need to acquire a college degree been so profound. Select wisely, basing your enrollment decisions on your own set of desired outcomes. Good results are likely to follow.