I often hear students confusing qualities they want with qualities they need.

Many years ago, walking through a large department store, I overheard a conversation between two shoppers. The young man picked up an expensive leather jacket with an eager grin and exclaimed in a breathless voice, “I need this.”

His girlfriend slowly looked up from the clothes rack with a look of pity and said, “I think you need to learn the difference between need and want.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I went along my way. But I’ve never forgotten that exchange, especially when talking to students about creating a college list that genuinely represents who they are and who they can become in the future.

Qualities Students May Want from Their College Education but Probably Do Not Need

A Prestigious College

The most significant quality that no one needs is attending a prestigious college. Despite what society pressures many young people to believe, going to a prestigious school has little measurable value compared to a less prestigious college. And while this may sound harsh, if someone applying to college has an ego that is so fragile that the only thing they can focus on is prestige (which is just another way of saying paying attention to what other people think), I don’t feel that person is ready to go to college. 

Hyper focusing on attending a prestigious college is, in my opinion, the likely cause of many of the most troubling aspects of college admissions today. Suppose I could wave a magic wand to remove the notion of prestige in the college search process. In that case, I am certain many students would have a markedly different (i.e., better) experience applying to colleges. 

The “Minor Conveniences”

There are several additional factors that students often believe they want but don’t need that I call “minor conveniences.” These are ‘nice to have’ conveniences, such as weather, dorms, food, parties, or an exciting location. You might ask, “If these are ‘nice to have,’ then what is wrong with factoring them into a search for colleges?” The problem is that many students hyper focus on these factors.

Location and Weather

For example, some students spend so much energy thinking about the location of a college in ways that do not determine if they will get an excellent education. Going to college in a place with preferred weather (sunny for students who think they want to spend much time at the beach or snowy because they enjoy snowboarding on the weekends) has little impact on later success or happiness in adult life.

The truth is, busy college students don’t have nearly as much time as they think to enjoy their preferred weather. And I know no one who has graduated college and looks back on the experience reflecting on the great weather.

“Big City Life”

A recent trend I have noticed is students who believe they need to go to college in a well-known large city. Their arguments about why this is so essential sound like this, “A smaller city or college town could not possibly have anything to do after class. I grew up in a city, so I really crave ‘big city life.’ Plus, I must get a job after college, and I will need to start getting internships right away. Only a big city will let me start my career.” 

I can’t argue that going to college in a big city would not be a remarkable experience in many ways. But these arguments simply do not hold water. No matter what size city the student grows up in, I know of very few high school students who are actual “city people” and are only accustomed to a social life staying up late bar hopping around a major metropolis. 

I also know that a considerable percentage of the most successful professionals in every field worldwide attended a university outside of a large city without immediate access to internships, jobs, or exciting nightlife. There is simply no good reason to believe that attending college in a smaller location will hold anyone back from pursuing a career filled with great success and happiness.

What Do Students Need from a College?

In many ways, the list of what students need from a college is probably fairly short. Below are a few ideas, but this might not be a comprehensive list of all the needs. 

The reason it’s so difficult to filter out “want” from “need” is that most of what a student needs from a college is subjective and perhaps a little abstract. It’s hard to easily measure most of what colleges do in terms of education. 

And yet, perhaps the most important need is not subjective but quite objective.

An Affordable College Education

Hands down, the most critical factor that overrides any other consideration is enrolling at an affordable college for the student and family. 

College costs have indeed soared, and there does not seem to be a lot of relief in sight. But with good planning, many students can find more than enough colleges to fit their financial needs. There is a severe need for students to not rely on taking on a crushing debt just for a college degree. Statistics about student loan debt in the United States are often discussed in the news and almost always paint a dire picture. 

I know of no college degree worth a loan burden that will significantly impact their quality of life and career choices later in life.

More Subjective Needs

After college affordability, determining what you need to get a good education is subjective.

The Right Learning Environment

Some learners thrive in large classroom environments that expect students to independently manage their time and tackle their assignments with little hands-on support. But more often, I believe most learners (regardless of high school GPA, test scores, or other factors that suggest academic intelligence) benefit from one-on-one attention and instruction tailored to their unique questions, strengths, weaknesses, etc. 

Frequently, I work with students who mistake what type of college student they are. Some believe they will only thrive in a college just like their high school because they’ve attended a huge high school, survived large classes, and worked successfully with teachers with large caseloads. While these types of students might get to the end of the college journey with a degree in hand, as a lifelong educator—having worked with students from preschool to graduate school and studied education in graduate school—I’m biased about what I believe to be the necessary conditions for a high-quality college education.

Most students need to go to a college where instruction is conducted on a “human” scale. A size of college where teachers and learners have time to discuss ideas, or peers can argue amongst themselves and consider points of view that are foreign to them. Above all, a college where students can form relationships with mentors who can help them with essential questions about their careers and next steps after college. 

Convincing students that a smaller learning environment is probably the best fit and investment for them is one of my most significant challenges as a college counselor. 

An Opportunity to Grow

Finally, students need to find opportunities to fail. The most profound growth comes from failure. 

Whether this can happen at a smaller or larger college is up to the student. But again, it is my experience that humans are more likely to risk failing in smaller environments where they are known, seen, and supported. 

Sadly, many students are lured to colleges (because of prestige or minor conveniences) that do not support their best college learning environment. As counselors and educational consultants, it’s difficult to confidently know how to guide students towards what they truly need and not merely want to make college decisions based on their best interests. I’ve noticed some counselors and IECs go down the rabbit hole of justifying a college list based on certain statistics or the presence of specialized majors that the student has suggested they would be interested in. But in my experience, most of the students we work with are still early in their development towards career exploration and even academic interests. I rarely work with a student who is a true “laser beam” who has honestly figured out what they want to do after college. Some counselors and IECs complain that their students seem to pick their college list by “feel.” This might be true, but I like to give students the benefit of the doubt after having a lot of good conversations about the difference between need and want, and then let them use their heart and mind to make a decision that’s going to fit best for them.

By Steven Mercer, EdD, Mercer Educational Consulting, IECA (CA).