3 Clues for Choosing a College

One of the most difficult parts of choosing a college is what to base the decision on besides “it’s close to my house” and perhaps considerations of price and prestige.

But those considerations alone are unlikely to lead to a particularly good decision.  One of the most enjoyable parts of college is going off to a strange unknown place where you don’t know anybody with other people that don’t know anybody and being placed outside your comfort zone and learning about yourself.

Price is not particularly helpful because the sticker price for schools rarely matches the actual price you will pay.  For example Harvard costs 60k a year, and yet the average debt on graduate for Harvard students is 10K$.  Yes, you read that right.  Harvard only costs 60k a year for the wealthy few who can afford to pay that much.  If you’re family makes less than 60k, every penny of that gets paid for through grants and scholarships.  Yet there are other colleges that cost 10k or so a year and close to 90% of that will be expected to be covered by the student through payments or debt.  So ignore sticker price and focus on debt at graduate and the quality of the schools financial aid department.

Finally, prestige.  If you get into an Ivy League school, you should probably go – but I would question whether the effort to get into such a school is worth it.  Studies have shown students of equal ability do just as well in their careers regardless of what undergraduate school they went to it just takes those from less prestigious schools a little longer to get there.  That’s with the exception of students who plan to go into law or medicine.

So if not proximity, price and prestige – then what?

The most important metric by FAR is their retention rate.  If students are dropping out like flies, then that is a clear sign of severe problems – either the school has an incompetent admissions department that is doing a poor job admitting students who are a good match for the institution (or for college itself), or – more likely – the college is poorly run over all – with shoddy professors, incompetent administration, and inefficient mechanisms for bringing students together into a community or providing an enjoyable/profitable experience.  Transferring colleges is not fun or easy process – and dropping out still worse – and so if students are doing either at any appreciable level than it is always a sign of endemic issues.  Avoid colleges likes this like the plague.

College with high retention rates almost always have effective mechanisms for helping students feel like they belong in the college and like they are part of the larger school community.  Indeed, this is one of the most enjoyable and unique aspects of college as a total institution – unless you end up going to prison or a mental institution you will probably never experience anything like it again in your life.  Those are perhaps poor analogies – but how many great movies have been set in total institutions?  “One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest”, “Shawshank Redemption”, “Weekend at Bernies” and so on.  There are pleasures indeed in being thrown together with random people and seeing what happens.  Being part of a grand social experiment that may very well lead to the formation of friendships that will follow you all the days of your life.  Or nothing whatsoever.  It’s always half chance –  like life itself.

Secondly, the department you’re joining.  This is more difficult because of the frequency of student major changes and the difficulty at choosing a major at such a young age.  So I do hope you are not going to college right out of high school – but rather giving yourself a chance to experience the world and know yourself a bit outside the shackles of school for at least a year or two.  At that point you will hopefully know enough of yourself to choose a major that is aligned with your deeper interests and will teach you something you need to learn.  Once you know this major you can look at schools with an eye towards the department you’re entering.  The qualities of the department you’re joining will have a much greater influence on your college experience than the school itself, so look closely.  Find professors who are tough but competent, who care deeply about their subject of expertise and are (or were) active in their field.  Who also care about the institution and about being a mentor for students, which is often correlated with being older (as we age we begin to turn from our own ambitions to helping the next generation.  Younger professors are much more likely to be focused mostly on their own careers).
Also, smaller departments are more effective at promoting a sense of belonging and community amongst students and professors than large ones.

The last major variable to consider is percentage of students from out of state and percentage of students who live on campus.  Even if you’re going to a local college, I encourage looking for a college with high numbers of both.  Commuter schools are generally drab, empty places without a soul.  Not even the ghosts dare dance there.  When a college becomes a home, something changes.  Not just a place to flit in and out of, but rather a place to be identified with, to be a part of, which strongly influences the disposition of students both towards their studies and to their fellow classmates.

I don’t want this to be any longer, so I will leave it at that.  Bottom line: choose a school that meets all 3 criteria, and you can hardly go wrong.

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