Choosing a College

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When I was 18 years old, I tried my best to give my parents angina: I attended three colleges in three semesters--in three states. I first traveled from Southern California to a smallish public college in Virginia, but left because I was horribly homesick and the culture shock was overwhelming. Off to community college I went, where the honors program I inadvertently tested into required that I take classes I had already taken at my first college (and in high school) because I needed to take them to get into UCLA. When I told the counselor I didn't want to go to UCLA, she asked, "Then why are you here?" Long story. So off I went to Grinnell College, a very small, elite liberal arts college in a town of 8,000 people smack in the middle of Iowa. Still some culture shock, but let's just say I lived happily ever after.

These (mis)adventures, combined with teaching experiences at two big research universities and a large state university, give me a bit of an insider's perspective on classroom environments and college life. The deadline (in the U.S.) to let colleges know you'll be matriculating this fall is May 1. For parents and young people heading off to college for the first time, here are my top three tips on choosing a college. (Note: some of these will apply to older "nontraditional" students as well, but I'm gearing my advice toward typical incoming undergraduates.)

1. Visit the college. If you'll be attending a residential college--especially one far from your home--ask to stay overnight with a student in the dorms, eat the food in the dining halls, and meet the students. Attend a couple of classes, ideally an introductory course in your anticipated major and an upper-division seminar.

2. Consider size and purpose. Colleges come in several flavors, and the type of institution you choose will affect your learning and social life. At a large, research-focused university, it's not uncommon to take courses of 300-1,000 students. In these courses, typically a professor will stand at the front of the class and lecture for 1-2 hours using PowerPoint. You'll meet in discussion sections or labs of 25-50 students led by teaching assistants, graduate students who may be more or less enthusiastic about or skilled in teaching than the professor. Science classes are more prone to being huge, while your humanities classes, because they require more writing (and grading by professor and TAs) will tend to be smaller.

There may be a payoff, particularly for social science and science students, who can stand this factory farming of students. Undergraduate students who distinguish themselves may have opportunities to assist graduate students, postdocs, and professors with research in the lab and in the field. Before you sign on to a college in the hopes of doing this kind of research, be sure such research programs are available for undergraduates.

In the middle of the spectrum are state universities and colleges typically referred to as "four-year colleges," even though most of them also offer Master's degrees (but not Ph.D.s). Depending on your state, these universities may not be the most competitive, top-tier institutions in your area, but because faculty here usually are not asked to undertake as much research as those as research universities, they may be more focused on teaching undergraduates, which means a better learning experience for you. Many of these schools--even if you're paying out-of-state tuition--can be an excellent deal. For example, when I enrolled in Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington), it would have been less expensive for me to attend that college while paying out-of-state tuition for four years than it was for me to attend a University of California school as an in-state student for five years (which was the time I was told it would likely take me to graduate).

At the far end of the spectrum are small, liberal arts colleges. At the best of these, professors still undertake research to keep current in their field, and the more elite the institution, the lighter might be the professors' teaching loads--meaning they teach fewer classes per term than their counterparts at state schools. For example, in the best economic times, professors might only need to teach five courses per year, which means they can invest more time and energy into each class--and each student, because classes are typically much smaller at these schools than at the other institutions I've already discussed. Unlike big universities and state colleges, where you will find many subcultures but maybe less of an institution-wide culture beyond sports fanaticism, small colleges definitely have character. Some attract students who are politically conservative or adherents of particular fundamentalist religions. Others may be quirky, left-leaning, gay-friendly colleges. Some will be career-focused, but in my opinion the best of these colleges offer students four years to learn to really think critically and creatively about the world. The best colleges prepare students for a life of public service and instill in students the understanding that a relatively small portion of the population attends college, and in return for that privilege, they have a responsibility to give back to society in whatever way makes sense to them.

I've provided an overview of four-year institutions, but don't overlook your local community college. (See college costs, below.)

3. Find out the true cost of the college. College is expensive, period. You may be better off attending a community college for two years and then transferring into a different school for your junior and senior years. I particularly recommend this route to students who want to attend large public colleges or universities, as community colleges typically work hand-in-hand with these schools to be sure community college students are prepped for entrance to their region's universities. Community college fees may fluctuate with the economy, but you can find some terrific deals--and fabulous professors, be they full-time or adjunct--at these institutions. Community college faculty are not required to undertake research, so they're focused, in theory, 100% on teaching. Unfortunately, many adjunct (part-time or non-tenure-track) faculty work at multiple institutions to make ends meet, so even though your community college class is small, you may be one of several hundred students your professor is teaching in any given term. It's too bad that community colleges get a bad rap from high-achieving students, who may be embarrassed to attend a two-year school as their friends head off to big state universities or the Ivy League, because their local two-year college may actually be a real gem. For example, of the four professors I had during my semester of community college, two were truly outstanding.

I wouldn't recommend the community college route for those looking to attend small liberal arts colleges because many students at these colleges cement their friendships and social circles in the first two years. These friendships are often lifelong, and so it's good to get in on the ground floor as a first-year student.

Small, elite liberal arts colleges may look expensive, but many of them now have excellent financial aid packages. You'll have to compete with an awful lot of students to get the best packages at the top-ranked, best-known colleges, but if you look at some of the lesser-known, but still very good, colleges ranked "best value" in all those college rankings that magazines publish in the fall, you'll find some excellent deals. For example, at my alma mater, Grinnell College, the comprehensive fee (tuition + room and board + other fees) was nearly $44,000 for the 2008-2009 academic year. Yet Grinnell has a program that guarantees no one who demonstrates financial need (and who wouldn't, with those kinds of fees?) graduates with more than $8,000 in debt. Plus they throw in a first-rate education. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges like Grinnell whose endowments are weathering the economic recession in a better condition than state university budgets, and it's worth seeking them out.

My next post will be on how to choose your major, since many colleges require that you declare a major at the time you matriculate (but later allow you to change it).

Meanwhile, as you consider which college to attend, here are some blogs and blog posts to check out:

College Hunter Blog offers lots of advice on picking a college, changing colleges, and matching your career goals with a college.

Elizabeth Kudner asks, Should study abroad affect your college choice?

Two years after graduating from college, Chelsea at Roots and Rings reflects on her own college-making decision process.

Joseph Yi at Brazen Careerist asks, College: name brand or generic?, and considers whether your college's brand matters once you're out interviewing for jobs.

Keath Low offers advice on choosing the right college when you have ADHD. If you have any kind of learning or physical disability, be sure your college is willing and able (read: can afford) to make the (legal! required!) accommodations you need to learn.

Kerrie Troseth offers a glimpse at the darker side of making the college decision, and one many parents will want to take seriously: understanding campus crime statistics and security protocols.

The title of this blog post by Pinyo at Moolanomy says it all: My Kid’s College Costs will be $467,000! Are You Kidding Me? She also offers a hindsight-is-20/20 post: 7 Mistakes I Made when I Went to College

Connie Veneracion considers whether to send her daughters to a residential or commuter school.

What are your tips for choosing a college?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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