Because of the competitive market for selective schools and the enormous costs of most colleges, students are more likely to end up at their safety school than they first think. So put the same amount of thought and effort into choosing that school as the rest. Why spend months or years working towards a great college application only to end up at a place you applied to hastily because it’s the only safety school you thought of? There are just as many options for safety schools as there are dream schools, so explore those thoughtfully and purposefully.
The safety school. We all know what it means: the place you’ll go if you have to, the place you know you can get in, the place that will be better than not going to college at all.
But here’s another way to think about it: the place you’re very likely to attend.
We usually think of schools in three categories: Dream, Reach, and Safety. Unless you’ve worked really hard at getting out of the “am I worthy?” mindset and thinking about it as a relationship instead, your dream school probably has a small acceptance rate and a high price tag. You should apply to this school—or several of these schools—but the term “dream” pretty much sums it up. Even if you get in, you may not be able to make the financial costs work. I’ve had students get into some pretty well-known and competitive dream schools like Swarthmore and the University of Chicago only to go someplace else with a more realistic price.
Reach schools usually have a higher acceptance rate and a slightly lower price tag, but they can still be difficult to get both an acceptance and a good financial aid package.
So you’re likely to go to a safety school—thousands of people do it every year. Rather than be dismayed by this, be smart about it. For a lot of students, their safety school is just the local affordable state college. Don’t limit yourself this way. There are hundreds of schools with acceptance rates over 80%. Think about what you really want in a school and what you really need, and find high-acceptance, affordable schools that meet your criteria. They’re out there.
If nothing else, please do this: apply to more than one safety school. If you apply to four colleges, make two of them safety schools. If you’re applying to more than four, make sure at least a quarter of them are safety schools. When you’re applying, don’t settle for just one; if you go to a safety school, you won’t feel like you settled.
One of the things lots of students worry about when it comes to safety schools is the importance of reputation and the “return on investment.” You seriously should not worry about these.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015 only 32.5% of Americans over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Getting a degree—from any accredited university—puts you in the top third in terms of education. Lots of the interesting, happy, financially stable people out there went to college—but very few of them went to a dream school. It will be fine.
Also, it’s really important to understand that your future earning relies on what you study much more than where you went to school. There’s a much stronger correlation between income and your college major than there is between income and where you went to school. So if earning a lot of money is important to you, you should spend a lot more time finding the right major (hint: STEM programs) than worrying about going to the “right” school. Return on Investment statistics are fine averages, but you’re probably not the average.
And one more important thing: once you know what you want from college, you’ll find that most colleges have what you’re looking for. All colleges have opportunities for social bonding; they all have leadership opportunities; they all have top performers and opportunities for prestige. All colleges, even the very selective ones, have students lose focus and leave without graduating. If you’re making the most out of what your college has to offer, you’re going to be great.