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Articles / Applying to College / Searching for "Safety" Schools

Searching for "Safety" Schools

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 15, 2019
Searching for "Safety" Schools

I don't like the term “safety school." By strict definition, a safety school is a college where you have at least an 80 percent chance of getting into, so you can typically assume that you're unlikely to be rejected.

So why am I writing about safety schools? Well, my 30-plus years of admissions counseling experience have shown me that researching, selecting and -- especially -- visiting potential safety schools is one of the most overlooked aspects of high schoolers' college processes. Safeties have a kind of lowly status. They're almost an afterthought. Why is that?

It's because the overwhelming majority of college applicants are blinded by their enthusiasm and confidence that they won't need a safety school. That self-confidence distorts the reality of their chances for gaining admission to the upper-two classifications of candidate colleges: the so-called “Reach" and “Ballpark" (or “Target") schools.

I recall a conversation with one accomplished high school senior at the beginning of his final high school year. We were trying to create a list of colleges that would meet his criteria and be a good match. After noting some hard-to-get-into Reach schools, we concentrated on a group of Ballpark/Target schools. After all that, he looked over his list, pondering each school for a bit, then turned to me and said, “I don't need a safety, do I?"

I cringed at his phrase “a safety." Not only was he dismissing his need for safety schools, he was also dismissing the need for more than one! I've seen this attitude many times and it can be a dangerous one. So, my mission today is to (1) make juniors (and even ambitious sophomores) aware of the safety component within the college process and (2) mention some often overlooked schools that fit quite well into the safety category. First, though, some background for context.

The annual anxiety about getting into a “good" or “elite" college reminds me of grocery shopping. It's all about brand names. Think of watching TV. Every day and night, we are bombarded by commercials that push “the leading brands." We see repeated images of massive pickup trucks showing “real" men doing tough work in the great outdoors. We see silver-bearded, worldly men drinking certain kinds of beer, which apparently makes them (the silver-bearded men) attractive to women 30 years their junior. And so on.

The same applies to colleges. The Big Three Ivy League schools (Princeton, Harvard and Yale) send out invitations to high school seniors who have literally no chance of being accepted. This is the analog to the beer commercials. Obviously, I don't believe that drinking the same beer that silver-beards drink will make me look attractive to women decades younger than I am, not that my wife would appreciate it, anyway. But (and this is a big but, so to speak), legions of high school students believe that only a name-brand college will do, and this can lead to a lot of wasted time and money completing and paying for applications that are doomed to fail even before the first keystroke is made.

Now, let's take a no-name-brand approach to your college search and see how it can relate to safety schools. I received an interesting press release a while back entitled Education Experts' Best Ten Colleges You've Never Heard Of — Why students love these affordable choices for higher education. Why should you care about these kinds of colleges? Why am I mentioned them?

I'm trying to expand your thinking about college selection, to get you to think beyond name brands, and to elevate the status of traditional safety schools in your mind. The big schools have large promotional budgets. The colleges described below have probably not sent you a shiny viewbook or spammed your inbox with invitations to apply. But you might be able to find among them a school (or two) that can easily meet your educational and budget requirements. And you thought these were just safety schools!

Check These Schools

The high cost of college leaves students feeling overwhelmed when it comes to choosing where to go or transfer. When you read the press release excerpts that I'll cite below, try to disregard the prejudices and preconceived notions you've developed about colleges so far. A former university president has some advice for potential students:

College rankings seems to pop up everywhere you look. Former university president and educator, Joe Schmoke, believes those rankings have little value. So, education experts with almost 300 years of combined experience at University Research & Review took a second look at the research. They evaluated almost 3,000 colleges and universities and came up with a list of their own. This is not another ranking list, but a refreshing look at good, reasonably priced schools whose students love them but remain not well known ...

I'd like to highlight four schools from that list. Caution: I'm willing to bet that almost all of you have never heard of most of the four that follow. That certainly doesn't mean they aren't worth considering. As I mentioned above, put aside your already formed mindsets about what makes a college worth attending. Students at the colleges below love going there. There must be compelling reasons for their enthusiasm, so keep an open mind. You may be motivated to do some deeper research on your own.

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College: Located in Tifton, Ga.

Students love the beautiful campus; this school offers a degree in, among others things, turf grass management for those aspiring to enter a career in the golf course industry; it even has its own golf course for hands-on application of classroom theory (Fun fact: Professional golfer Boo Weekley graduated from here… makes sense, right?)

Brandman University: Located in Irvine, Calif.

This is one of the most progressive institutions in the country; Brandman embraces competency based education, so if you know the subject matter you are not held back by outdated seat time requirements.

Kettering College: Located in Kettering, Ohio

If a person is searching for colleges with degree programs in a health profession and schools with reasonable costs, plus a variety of programs, a professional and committed faculty and a responsive administration – look at Kettering; its physician's assistant (master's) and RN (associate's) programs have all of these attributes.

Lincoln Memorial University: Located in Horrogate, Tenn.

If you want to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine, veterinary medicine or maybe earn one of several master's degrees in a rural setting – this is the school for you; Lincoln Memorial is away from the maddening crowds – its academic programs, and costs, are not the least bit maddening.

Next, in case you want to consider some slightly better-known safety schools, check out Super Safety Schools: 25 Top Colleges You Can Actually Get Into. Forbes contributor Caroline Simon cites the Forbes “Super-Safety" list:

It contains the nation's best schools -- considering high salaries, low debt, high student satisfaction – that accept no fewer than 66 percent of all applicants. The list is vast, with public and private schools across the country, and represents all the diversity American higher education has to offer: location, size, religious affiliation, atmosphere and more. Acceptance rates range from 66 percent (Michigan State University) to 81% (University of Iowa and Westmont College).

Here are five from that list:

- James Madison University: Harrisonburg, Va. Established in 1908 as a teacher's college for women, it now educates over 19,000 undergraduates in 77 programs. Close to 91% of first-years return as sophomores; after graduation, they continue to reap the rewards of their education: JMU alumni are more likely than their peers to be employed full time.

- Wofford College: Spartanburg, SC. Wofford College is situated on a campus designated as a National Historic District in 1974. The private liberal arts college offers 26 undergraduate majors and 22 minors. Greek Life is central to Wofford's social life: there are 12 chapters on campus, claiming 35% of the male and 43% of the female student body.

- Willamette University: Salem, Ore. The oldest university in the Western US (established in 1842), Willamette University has more than 100 student clubs and organizations, including Wulapalooza, an annual earth, art and music festival to celebrate Earth Day. The campus is next to the 300+ acre Zena Forest. Notable alum: former Boeing CEO James Albaugh.

- University of Denver: Denver, Colo. Founded in 1864 as the Colorado Seminary to educate members of a mining camp, UD now encompasses 220 graduate and undergraduate programs. The PinS research grant provides students with opportunities to embark on their own research initiatives. Notable alum: former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

- University of Delaware: Newark, Del. Three students from the school's inaugural class went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. The school also launched the nation's first study abroad program in 1923. UD owns a 146-foot research vessel that performs ocean exploration initiatives. Notable alum: former Vice President Joe Biden.

Check the cost of these schools, as well as their acceptance rates and the average loan debt of their graduates. Also, keep in mind that many offer a good selection of vocation-oriented degrees. Why is that important?

Today's job market favors those who have been equipped to perform within specific disciplines, rather than those who have a more non-specific education in such fields as philosophy, English, history, ethnic studies and other general liberal arts areas. Of course, this is not to say that the liberal arts are a negative in the job search pool. However, current trends appear to favor applicants who have skill sets that can be used almost immediately on the job.

Search for safeties! I'm willing to bet that you'll be so pleased by what you find among these lesser-known “brands" that you may very well elevate their status on your candidate list from mere “Safety" to the much more exciting “Target/Ballpark." Do your homework. Rewards await you!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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