The College Search Process and Reference-Bias


College SeriesThe other day I was listening to a Hidden Brain clip about reference bias.  Apparently, a new research study found that students exposed to their very best peers became discouraged about their own abilities and performance — and were more likely to drop out. Just on face value, that rang true for me.  When I am up against someone whose performance is “unattainably better” than mine own, it is quite tempting to simply give up.  No, I don’t want to play golf with a PGA pro, and every 2.5 rated tennis player knows it would be suicide to play against a 4.0.  Far better to play a 3.0 and be challenged in a way that will “up” your game.

But why is this true? According to the research suggested in this piece, it’s because of reference-bias.  The idea is that you draw a faulty conclusion because you think the atypical or exceptional is the norm and then you feel inferior or incapable. When it comes to the college search process, parents and students alike are drawing faulty conclusions about the landscape of college admissions because of who and what they identify as the reference group.  For example:

  • The Ivy Leagues and their single digit selectivity make headlines. In reality, nearly half of US Colleges accept 75% of their applicants.[i]  Only 3% of colleges have an acceptance rate of less than 25%.
  • In terms of what students and parents actually pay for college, here’s reality: “Despite increasing published prices, the average net tuition and fee prices that students paid after taking grant aid and tax benefits into consideration declined between SY2005-6 and SY2010-11 in public two-year and four-year institutions and in private non-profit four-year institutions.”[ii]
  • Most students who take an AP course get a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. Not true! According to the College Board’s data, only 35% of juniors and 34% of seniors are scoring that high.[iii]

What is your reference point these days?  How can you assist your college-bound students to not draw faulty conclusions?  Even discussing this blog post over a meal could lead to a fruitful discussion!





About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.

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