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Using Future Student Outcomes to Find the Best College - A Data-Influenced Approach to College Planning

college prep future planning guidebook high school Feb 22, 2022


Thanks for reading Future Proof Kids. Each issue is a step-by-step guide to help you design your child's future. I've summarized the critical points in the 5 W's & 1 H section below to make it easier to see if this guide is for you. 


5 W's & 1 H - How to Find the Right College With the 5 | 10 | 20 Rule

Who: For college applicants who want more than a 46% chance of graduating college with a positive ROI degree.

What: A simple, data-influenced technique to identify schools where you can finish in a reasonable amount of time and where your degree will pay off in a field with long-term potential.

When: Best before you start looking for colleges.

Where: Can be applied to any U.S. college.

Why: Do you want your college experience to be a transactional expense that changes your life incrementally or a transformational investment that changes your life exponentially?

How: Use graduation rates, degree return on investment (ROI), and long-term income estimates to determine student outcomes.


Can't wait to start searching? Go to the Digital Toolbox at


How to Use the 5 | 10 | 20 Rule to Find the Best College Outcome

You want your child to attend a good college, and you want the investment of time and money to be worthwhile. But you don't want to send your child to a college where they won't succeed or get a degree that won't provide them a meaningful career. 

How do you find a college that can do all of this? 

The solution is to focus on student outcomes after college. The best way to do this is to apply Engenius Learning's 5 | 10 | 20 rule. 


The Best College vs. The Best College Outcome

College planners focus too much on getting you into the "best" college. 

"Just go there, and everything will be fine," they say, "you'll grow into it and find yourself."

Unfortunately, this mindset has led to some terrible outcomes for students.

Currently, in U.S. colleges:

• 30% of first-year students drop out before their sophomore year

• 54% of all students drop out before getting a degree

If you're a bit math-averse, that means just 46% of those who start college finish!

As the statistics show, the advice to attend the "best college" has led to very poor outcomes for students.


How College Ranking Lists Have Ruined Student Outcomes

When searching for a college, students often come across college ranking websites. One of the most popular,, recently ranked the top 5 colleges in America. The colleges were

  1. Princeton
  2. Harvard
  3. Columbia
  4. MIT (Massachusets Institute of Technology)
  5. Yale

According to this group of "college experts," these colleges were the best of the best.

But the best for whom?

Best for business school? Best for liberal arts? Best for engineering? 

Best if you are still undecided and need time to find your way?

How about a student looking for a small school experience? Or maybe you want to go to a school with a great sports program. Would you like to do meaningful research or attend a technical college and get your hands dirty? 

How can a general list of colleges meet your specific needs? 

The answer is that it can't. 

College lists are written by someone else, for someone else, and for a purpose other than to help you find your best fit. Websites are in the business of getting views, not personalizing college searches, so titles like "Best Colleges in America" get clicks.

The result is that these lists try to categorize colleges into a one-size-fits-all solution. 

And you know how well one-size-fits-all pants fit, right?


Getting Through College Is Better Than Getting To College

The current system is only designed to get you TO the best college. 

We should be concerned with getting you TO & THROUGH college with a degree to help you achieve your objectives and have a positive ROI.

This concept of looking beyond college is called Future Planning and will dramatically change how you approach your college search. 

To successfully plan for your future, you need to look at:

  • 5-year graduation rates
  • Degree ROI
  • 20-year prospects for different majors and sectors

When you look at college outcomes this way, your success rate at getting TO & THROUGH improves dramatically.

FUTURE PLANNING > college planning


The Current College Search Process Is Broken

Statistics prove that the current method of searching for colleges doesn't work. Current search methods rely primarily on the opinions of others. While this type of information can be a small part of the decision-making process, it shouldn't be the cornerstone of your search methodology.

To understand why the old system isn't working, let's break it down.

The current system uses 3 terms to search for colleges: 

  • Reach
  • Target
  • Safety

These 3 terms divide schools into different categories. Unfortunately, the categories aren't very detailed, and the terms do more harm than good. Let's explore how:


Reach Schools

Reach Schools are your dream schools that you aren't good enough for but hope to get into anyway. 

Think about the term "Reach Schools." The term means that the school is too hard for you and you don't fit in.

So why apply at all?

Why would you apply to a school where almost everyone had better grades and test scores than you? Every day would be a struggle.

But the old-school guidance counselors say "that's okay. You'll make it. Look at what a great college this is - it's at the top of the list on the website."

Just look at the statistics to see how that worked out for others.


Target Schools

Target Schools are places where you should be accepted, but they aren't your "dream school" and not the dreaded and highly embarrassing "Safety School."

Even if they're schools where you should do well, they're still not your dream school and, therefore, will always be ranked as a secondary choice.

When I first started advising students, I had a brilliant student named Colleen. Colleen targeted Ivy League schools and actually got accepted into Yale and Columbia (her Target Schools) but got rejected at Princeton (her Reach School). Even though Yale and Columbia are still in the top 5 according to, they weren't Colleen's first choice and therefore occupied a different place in her mind. Despite graduating from Yale four years later, she was never totally happy because it wasn't Princeton.

Sad, but true.

Read more about Malcolm Gladwell's take on the big fish little pond effect for college admissions.


Safety Schools

If you get rejections everywhere else, the dreaded Safety School is your only option. Safety Schools are classified under the old system as a place you can always fall back on if the colleges you want don't accept you.

Two bad things happen when you're forced to "slum it" at your safety school:

  • You become a Safety School apologist. All conversations about the place you went to college start with, "For a safety school, it's not so bad."
  • You develop a severe case of School FOMO (fear of missing out). You're convinced that better things will happen at another school where you weren't accepted. Safety School students constantly consider upgrading, I mean transferring to a "better" college.

How can you enjoy the experience and get everything you deserve if you look elsewhere?

In addition to School FOMO, Safety School students often have trouble finding "their people." How are you supposed to find someone at this school who is like you? When you categorize schools like this, kids at Safety Schools will be, by definition, "beneath" you.


Examples of How the System Doesn't Work

The key to success is finding the best combination of the right college and the right major. You need to find the balance between earning a college degree and achieving your career goals. To do this, you need to find out which colleges have the highest graduation rates and offer the best chance of a solid ROI for your future. 

The existing system does not provide these details. And without that level of detail, the likelihood of failure is high. With the skyrocketing cost of college, it simply doesn't make sense to spend several years going to college without graduating with a degree that will lead to a good future. 

Currently, the statistics on graduation, dropout rates, and college debt at American colleges are bad. Really bad.

Aside from the high dropout and low graduation rates, the average ROI for a college takes 20 years before it becomes positive! 

In addition, there are 7,588 different majors at U.S. colleges where the ROI becomes positive only after the average age of death! And we're not talking about any small colleges here.

Brown, Duke, NYU, and Univesity of Pennsylvania, just to name a few, all have several majors with a negative ROI. However, one of the most disappointing colleges for student outcomes is UCLA.


UCLA has 11 of 54 programs in which the ROI never becomes positive. That's 20% of the majors!

Here's the list of negative ROI majors:

• Architecture

• Area Studies

• Biology

• Classical and Ancient Studies

• Dance

• Fine and Studio Arts 

• Geological and Earth Sciences

• History

• Music

• Physiology

• Psychology


UCLA, by the way, regularly leads the nation in the highest number of applicants (168,000 in 2021). Considering that the ROI is never positive for almost 20% of the courses, one wonders why all these students applied?

It must be the food:


A Better Way to Search - Student Outcomes

What will the college do for you ?

When we apply to colleges, the focus is primarily on what can you offer the college. You take rigorous classes in high school and get good grades. Study for the ACT or SAT, join clubs and do a number of things that say "pick me, pick me" to the college. Look at all the wonderful things I can do for you!

But shouldn't the focus be on what the college can do for you?

You would think since you are the one paying tuition that it should be all about you. But colleges have some pretty savvy marketing people who have been able to flip your perspective from what colleges can do for you to what you can do for colleges.

Sinister, isn't it?


How to Use the 5 | 10 | 20 Rule

To avoid the problems of the past, we have to look forward to looking at student outcomes as our goal.

I have created a digital toolbox for you at where you can search colleges by:

  • College
  • Major
  • 5-Year Grad Rates
  • 10-Year Positive ROI Threshold
  • 20-Year Earnings Estimate
  • Lifetime Return on Investment


5 - This number represents the percentage of students who graduate in less than 5 years. 

The current US average for students graduating in less than five years is 63.8%.

For decades, four years was the norm, but the time required to complete your education has gradually increased, and five years is now closer to the norm.

Studying for more than five years will strain your financial and emotional reserves. While college can be the best time of your life, it can also be a costly time. Make sure you can and want to afford the cost of your education.

Search for colleges with average 5-year graduation rates above the national average (my threshold for my students is 70%). This will help you avoid overpaying for an education that may not live up to your expectations. You may come across a great option for you that has low grad rates. If so, keep this school in contention, but make certain you find out why the school's grad rates are so low.


10 - This number represents your threshold for a positive ROI in your degree and college.

A positive ROI in less than 10 years after graduation means your earnings exceed your investment.

Be wary of a college and degree program where the ROI takes longer than 10 years to turn positive. Colleges are aware of student outcomes and if they continue to "sell" you a degree that never pays off, this college degree is an expense and not an investment.


20 - The 20-year outlook for this field of study

Are you taking a major in an emerging field with good job prospects?

Will this major place you in a field where you can work for the next 20 years, or are you studying a subject with poor historical performance or an area of study with limited prospects?

They (whoever they are) say, "Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life." Well, that might be true if you have the means to support yourself. Unfortunately, many who follow the advice of "do what you love" love their job, but they don't love the second job they have to take to earn enough to love their first job!

When choosing a field of study, your future becomes a little easier if what you love is a dynamic, high-growth field with good job prospects. 

But we are not always so lucky. If you are not so lucky, make your major your minor (you can still study what you love), find an area that interests you and has a bright future, and make that your major! It is the best of both worlds!

What sometimes works even better is an MBA or law degree on top of that to make a great career in the field you love.


Career Categories

Future High-Growth Careers

• Artificial Intelligence

• Blockchain

• Crypto

• Data Science


Stable, Always In-Demand Fields

• Accounting

• Computer Science

• Engineering

• Medicine


Historic Underperformers

• Education

• Journalism

• Liberal Arts

• Visual Arts

Author's Note: I have a degree in the humanities, love it, and have a great career. But historically, this field has a low or negative ROI.


Real-Life Case Study - Emily's Art & Business Career

Emily was an amazing artist and you would never know by the looks of her extensive portfolio that she was just a high school student. Besides her keen sense of art, she was a natural and gifted leader.

Emily knew the negative ROIs associated with art degrees. Rather than impoverish herself, decided to make art and design, her passions, her minor, and pursued a major in marketing.

While in college, she worked in every art studio she could find, eventually landing in the art department of a museum. After college, she got her MBA and used her experience in art studios and museums to land a job at an interactive children's museum. After 15 years in various museums, she landed the top job in one of the most prestigious museums as the director of interactive art exhibits.

She is responsible for managing her staff of more than 25 people: determining what art and interactive exhibits to include, developing future exhibitions, calculating budgets, and handling marketing. Her career path began by combining her passion with her interest.

For more information about the 5 | 10 | 20 Rule or Future Planning, contact Mike Flynn at [email protected]


Good luck with your search,

Mike Flynn

Engenius Learning 


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