Alex McNeil, co-founder
While Andrew and I took similar paths in high school, pushing ourselves through a litany of AP courses, our paths diverged after graduating: Andrew went straightaway to Johns Hopkins to begin his undergraduate studies while I took a year off school to travel, eventually finding my way to The University of Puget Sound, a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest.
Although we each encountered many interesting opportunities during our time in college, we nevertheless had vastly different experiences of that time. Whereas I remembered Puget Sound as a place to savor learning and to explore my interests, Andrew told grimmer stories: an academic culture that pushed students to the breaking-point, friends whose college experiences had been consumed by schoolwork, stress, and anxiety.
Was all the stress Andrew described worth it? We couldn't help but wonder – so we started digging. We read dozens of articles and studies discussing correlations between college choice and income, happiness, and job placement. We collected the testimonies of friends and classmates, interviewing them about their college experiences, their current job prospects, and about what they would have done differently.
Our findings were simultaneously surprising and predictable.
When it came to life after graduation, the happier students were those who had the opportunity in college to take time to spread their roots extracurricularly, engaging in sustained projects with peers outside the classroom; to build strong connections with mentor figures, such as professors and professionals from fields of interest; and to discover genuine interests that would sustain them beyond the classroom, in jobs often located in the region in which they went to school. (We also found that the incomes of students who went to highly selective colleges was only occasionally higher than that of their peers who had attended less selective schools – and not higher whatsoever in STEM fields.)
It seemed to us that the most valuable educational opportunities were in abundant supply at a particular type of school. Satisfaction was not, in fact, found at the prestigious research university, where academic culture can be as or more suffocating for students than high school. Instead, it was the less selective, often smaller colleges (with more flexible and relaxed academic cultures, smaller class sizes, hands-on professors and intimate student communities) that struck us as the better institutions for learning.
This realization struck like a bolt of lightning. If college selectivity and post-graduate happiness were often inversely correlated, this had huge ramifications for how students approached high school. Rather than piling on as many AP courses as humanely possible, in the hope of being accepted to a highly selective school without knowing precisely why, students could rest easier and still achieve all, if not more, of their goals.
By reorienting their college goals toward well-fitting, less selective programs, students could justify taking fewer burdensome and time-consuming classes. In their extra time, they could practice self-care, or devote their focus to exploring career opportunities, and experiences that, rather than padding a resume, were genuinely meaningful. Students could spend less time on work and more time on accruing valuable self-knowledge and maturity.
For two "survivors" of a high school academic culture set on escape velocity, this approach to academics (and to college admissions) was a revelation.
We founded North Coast around the belief that college counseling, in addition to helping students discover their unique talents and interests, could be an opportunity to help them actually enjoy high school. They could enter into college with the confident self-knowledge that we ourselves accumulated, slowly and rockily, through trial and error.