One of, if not the, most important questions for parents to ask themselves is, “Why do I want my child to go to college?” There are loads of good reasons– experience, education, career paths, to name a few– and all of these are far more important than which college they ultimately attend, except insofar as they inform decisions about which college the student ultimately attends.

While students and families often focus on getting accepted at their dream school, data show that the journey from high school graduation to college enrollment and graduation, and the experiences students have during that journey, are far more important than which college the student attends in making for a successful college experience.

The Gallup-Purdue Index, a joint research effort between Purdue University and the Lumina Foundation, worked to identify the aspects of the college experience that translate into longer term success: life satisfaction, employee engagement, and well-being. The project found that type of college– public or private, small or large, selective or not selective– had far less impact on the student’s adult life than did types of experiences the student had.

So whether you’re just starting to think about college or starting to pack your graduating senior, here are the “Big Six” college experiences that translate to satisfaction, well-being and success both in college and in life after college:

  • Having a professor who made the student excited about learning
  • Feeling that professors cared about the student as a person
  • Finding a mentor who encouraged the student to pursue goals and dreams
  • Working on a project that took a semester or more to complete
  • Having an internship or job that allowed the student to apply what they were learning in the classroom
  • Participating actively in extracurriculars

In fact, the study found that well-being and career engagement levels were similar for graduates of private and for public colleges; differences came not from type of school but from the percent of the above experiences that the person had as a college student with each incremental experience adding to overall well-being and career engagement. Furthermore, 75% of students who had all six experiences graduated in four years, compared with just 61% who didn’t.

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