When I ask clients why they are considering hiring me, most respond, “I want you to help me get into a good college.”

On the surface, this sounds like a totally reasonable answer. But, of course, I always ask a follow-up question like, “What’s a good college?”

Most students and families struggle to answer with something other than, “You know, a good college like HarvPrinceStan.” 

My follow-up question inevitably is, “Well, what do you think makes this a good college?”

Most students and families get frustrated with me at this point in the conversation because they understand that I will probably keep asking them questions they will struggle to answer. So, we move on to other topics. 

However, in my head, I cannot stop thinking about how to sincerely judge if a college is “good.” 

The truth is there is no easy answer to this question. When I struggle to find answers to important questions, I am drawn to borrow ideas from other fields in the hope that I can see the question from a different perspective. 

In this case, I like to borrow concepts from the world of economic theory.

The Concept of “Experience Good”

In economics, the term “experience good” describes a product or service that is difficult to evaluate until after it has been consumed. Thus, the word “experience.”

In the case of a college, the product being “consumed” is the education and experience offered by the university. The consumer, in this case the prospective student, must decide which college to attend based on various factors, including reputation, cost, location, and available programs. However, it is not always easy to know for certain how well a college will meet a student’s needs or expectations until after they have enrolled and begun their studies. 

This is where the concept of an “experience good” comes into play. Often, a product or service is difficult to evaluate until after it has been consumed because the value of the good or service is based on the individual consumer’s experience and satisfaction. 

In the case of a college, the value of the education and experience offered by the institution is largely dependent on the individual student’s experience and satisfaction with their time there.

College Selection Is Not a “Search Good”

While it is important for prospective students to research and gather as much information as possible before deciding which college to attend, some students may make the mistake of approaching the college selection process as though it were a “search good.” A search good is a product or service that is easy to evaluate before it is consumed—often because the product or service has a clear and objective value or quality. 

In the case of a college, it can be tempting for students to approach the selection process as though they are simply looking for the “best” college based on factors such as reputation, rankings, or acceptance rates. However, this approach ignores the fact that the value and quality of a college education is largely dependent on the individual student’s experience and satisfaction.

Is Selecting a College Just an Impossible Quest?

If choosing a college is an “experience good” (something that has to be experienced and consumed before you know if it’s worthwhile), then it almost sounds like it’s impossible for a high school student to make decisions about what colleges to apply to. Why bother researching colleges at all? Why not just apply to any college that sounds good at first glance? 

I don’t think students have to be this fatalistic when it comes to choosing colleges. Instead, I recommend asking a different question. 

Rather than asking, “Is this a good college?” I recommend asking the question, “What will be the experience of attending this college?” 

With a little self-reflection and guidance from family, friends, teachers, and counselors, high school students can come to a fairly clear idea of whether they would have a similarly satisfying experience at one college compared to another. 

At the end of the day, I think the most important lesson to learn from economists when it comes to choosing colleges is that there’s no such thing as one simple formula for what makes a college “good.” The good news is there are hundreds of great colleges in the United States for all types of students.

I’m an experienced Independent Educational Consultant who has had the privilege of accompanying many students on their quest to find a college that fits them best. If you’re interested in having me by your side on your personal college admission journey, please contact me