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Cal students at UC Berkeley on Friday, April 10, 2015.
Credit: Alison Yin/Hechinger Report

As college costs have climbed well beyond both the rate of inflation and the average rise in family income, questions about the benefit of a college degree have come into sharper focus.

Stories of students saddled with $100,000 or more of educational debt have become cautionary tales as parents and prospective students enter the college selection process.

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the return on a college degree seems less automatic. Too many college graduates seem to end up back in their parents’ basement, or working as baristas, to promote confidence in the power of the college experience to truly change lives and tilt a life trajectory upward.

Related: The looming decline of the public research university

After 30 years spent talking with high school students and their parents at Muhlenberg College, I get it. For half my career, I not only managed an admissions operation, but I supervised a financial aid operation as well. I have had countless conversations with worried moms and dads about how in the world to pay for their child’s college education. I have heard the anxiety about not only how to make the finances work, but also how to guarantee an appropriate return on a sacrificial investment.

The hard truth is that college has never been a guarantee in terms of outcome.

While all of the data indicates that college does, in fact, greatly increase a student’s chances of economic and life success, each individual case is ultimately a universe of one, and past data is no guarantee of future results.

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The college experience works best when it is a true partnership between a student and the college. The ideal partnership includes smart faculty who are interested in connecting with the students they are teaching. It also includes a diverse and motivated student body who provide friendships, support and stimulation.

“The hard truth is that college has never been a guarantee in terms of outcome.”

A range of activities and experiences that broaden and challenge the student is also important. Students help the process when they arrive ready and eager to take advantage of this special four-year window for thought, exploration and growth.

Of course, not all students arrive on college campuses fully ready to take advantage of this opportunity. And not all colleges are equally ready to engage their students in all of the important ways they need to be engaged in order to maximize the potential of this experience. Finding the “right match” has long been a challenge, and that process seems to become a bit more complicated each year.

As students and parents search for potential matches, a host of rankings and ratings have sprung up to provide a variety of third-party perspectives regarding which college might be just right for a particular student. The colleges themselves have responded by analyzing the rankings and then asking themselves how to make themselves look better in the rankings they believe matter most. In addition, colleges have become more and more sophisticated in their marketing approaches, often employing consultants to help them aim their messages at the right students in just the right way to move those students along the continuum from awareness to interest to commitment.

Big data has become more and more a part of the equation, especially as colleges try to “optimize financial aid”— meaning yielding the desired class at the desired aid budget. The challenge for colleges is that the traditional age student population has been shrinking for the past few years, and the percentage of families who can pay all or most of the cost of higher education is shrinking even faster. The challenge for families is that college costs continue to rise much faster than most family incomes. This creates pressures within the admissions and aid system that challenge both families and colleges each year. Many who study the economics of higher education say that this is not sustainable, but solutions remain elusive.

Related: Colleges and universities join together to survive enrollment and financial problems

Finally, there’s the political aspect. Are standardized tests accurate or unfair? Should financial aid be based only on need, or is merit a legitimate consideration? What should be the role of legacy admissions, of affirmative action, of life experience and of hurdles overcome? Each of these questions takes on a political aspect that colors the argument depending upon eye and political perspective of the beholder.

What hasn’t changed in my many years in admissions is the truly heroic work being done by so many high school guidance counselors, high school teachers, church pastors, and community based organizations to help young people and their parents figure out the big questions surrounding college admissions.

I include many of my admissions colleagues across the country in that effort as well. For many of us, in many different roles, working to help students find the “right match” has remained a central guiding principle. The issues that swirl around that essential principle may become a more complex briar patch each year, but in the end, each student is unique, and helping them find their right fit will help make the college experience most meaningful and successful.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter

Christopher Hooker-Haring
 retired after 30 years as vice president of enrollment management at Muhlenberg College
 Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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