My wife and I have four children. Two have graduated from college, one will graduate from college this year, and one is a freshman in college. Each one is different, one from another. In addition, we have counseled hundreds of families who are going through the process. Parents want the best for their child, and have strong feelings about how college choice will relate to the trajectory their child's adult life will take.
Here is where so many families go wrong: they place too much importance on the school and not enough importance on the child. This mistake is made over and over by caring, conscientious, involved parents, who are trying to do their best during an exciting, confusing time. Families tend to spend more time researching schools than understanding the best situation for their child, by starting with the child first. Catalogs are referenced, "Best of..." lists are consulted, and friends and neighbors are asked, "What have you heard are good schools?" or "What have you heard about _________ University?" They will ask their child, "Which school are you interested in?" or "Do you think you'd like a big school or a small school?"
As a result of this backward approach, the time taken to achieve an undergraduate degree is skyrocketing, due to college transfers being at an all-time high. It now takes the average student over five and a half years to earn their degree. Perhaps your child has done a terrific job of achieving impressive grades, test scores, gained admission to an elite school and was given wonderful institutional aid, but that flies out the window if the process was built on the school first.
When we begin to work with a new family, our first job is to understand the child. What are the child's natural areas of interest? Do they enjoy competitive situations? How do they see their life after school? The more we understand the child, the better job we can do matching them to a school. The same is true for parents who decide to lead this process on their own. The best advice we can give is to start early, and have real conversations with your child - not about schools, but about them!