With April around the corner, high school juniors are beginning to tour colleges across the country while seniors receive admission decisions and choose where they will matriculate. How does one decide when there are over 4,000 colleges in the United States?
“You want to know what I look for in a college? Hot chicks in the view book. If there are lots of
babes in the view book, I apply.”
Parents and students are swamped with information about colleges: college directories,
magazines, and view books all offer a variety of facts and figures. Some of the information is
useful, much of it is useless, and occasionally it’s simply inaccurate.
Here is a list of things that matter when considering colleges:
Location. Geography will play an important role in the college selection process. First, you
should narrow down the parts of the country where you would be interested in attending
college: Northeast (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and New England), Mid-Atlantic
(northern Virginia to Delaware), South (Mid-Virginia to Florida and west to the Mississippi),
Midwest (Ohio west to the Dakotas and south to Kansas), Southwest (Texas and environs), West
(California north to Washington and east to Colorado).
Here’s a rough sketch of some characteristics of each area:
Northeast. The Northeast is the powerhouse of private universities. Without a doubt, the
Northeast has the most impressive collection of private colleges anywhere in the world, from
small and distinguished Williams, Amherst, & MIT to the eight coveted Ivy League colleges. Most of the
colleges have the “classic college” look—beautiful campuses with red brick or neo-Gothic
buildings. The exceptions to the “classic campus” aesthetic are the several Northeast colleges that are in
cities, often in undesirable neighborhoods (Yale, Vassar, Columbia, Penn).
Northeastern colleges are known for their long-standing traditions, century-old rivalries, and
famous alumni. The Northeast’s failure is in its public colleges—dollar-for-dollar they are
probably the worst collection of public colleges in the country. (The reason is obvious: unlike
the rest of the country, the Northeast only recently saw the need for public colleges due to the
overwhelming success of its private colleges.) If you’re looking for a college in the Northeast,
it’s advisable to stick with a private one.
Mid-Atlantic. These colleges range from Johns Hopkins, a school so focused on its graduate
research that the founding president didn’t even want undergraduates, to St. Johns, a great-books
school greatly concerned with the undergraduate education. The Mid-Atlantic is mostly known
for its DC-area schools: Georgetown, George Washington, American, Catholic, U. Maryland
at College Park, and George Mason. If you’re interested in politics, policy, or law, these Mid-
Atlantic schools may be right for you.
South. Despite its unearned reputation for being backward, the South is the powerhouse of
public universities: University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Florida, New College, and James Madison University.
There are also many well-known private schools: Duke, Washington & Lee, Wake Forest,
Davidson, Vanderbilt, Emory, Tulane, University of the South, and the University of Richmond.
The private schools in the south, with the exception of Duke and Emory, tend to be more
traditional (meaning you can’t major in the History of the Toilet in Southwest Mongolia). Many
southern schools still maintain “old south” traditions such as formal dances and honor codes. Many Southern schools still require that students dress in formal attire for football games. If
you’re looking for a good public school or a traditional private school, the south is the place for
Midwest. The Midwest has an eclectic bunch of schools, the powerhouse being Rockefeller’s
baby, the University of Chicago. The Midwest also has U. Michigan (50,000+ students and
counting), the best overtly Protestant college in Wheaton, and some wonderful private schools
like the Ivy-caliber Northwestern, the remarkable Hillsdale, and the excellent Kenyon. Most
private Midwest colleges tend to be conservative/traditional, reflecting the values of the people
of the Midwest, while most Midwestern public schools have vocational tendencies that focus on
Midwestern colleges offer a big advantage to you if you don’t live in the Midwest: they are
eager to attract non-Midwestern students. There simply aren’t many students from the Northeast,
South, or West dying to attend college in Illinois or Ohio, so geography may be to your
Southwest. The Southwest has the University of Texas at Austin, Rice, SMU and others. There
are many other respectable schools, from Texas A&M to Kansas’ two universities (Kansas
State and U. Kansas), but it’s rare that a competitive student from outside the state would be
interested in them. Both UT-Austin and Rice are good schools; UT-Austin’s big advantage is the
city of Austin (the so-called live music capitol of the world).
West. The West’s strength is obvious: technology. From Stanford to Cal-Tech, technology is
king. The West’s other strength is Hollywood. UCLA and USC both have excellent film and
entertainment-related programs. (The other big-hitter in the film-entertainment field, and one
of the best undergraduate schools in the country for film, is NYU.) The West’s weakness is
traditional, student-focused, liberal arts and humanities-based education (small classes, real
professors, actual discussions—no 400-student classes).
It’s unfortunate that with all the wealth and the intelligent students in the West, it has no
equivalent to Yale or Princeton. Reed, Pomona, and Colorado College are probably the West’s
best liberal arts colleges. If you’re considering Colorado College, you should keep in mind that
it’s one of only two colleges in the country where students take only one course at a time.
Other Considerations. There are other geographical considerations, such as weather,
accessibility, and distance from home. The best way to assess these issues is to visit the campus
during the academic year to determine whether you can withstand the cold of Cornell or the
bucolic cow-tipping plains of Notre Dame. You also need to decide if you would prefer an urban,
suburban, or rural school. Many students have both Cornell and NYU on their list of schools,
and if they truly like one, they will probably dislike the other. Cornell is quite rural- hours from
anything. While NYU is the ultimate urban college—so urban it doesn’t even have a campus.
Most students strongly prefer small, suburban or urban campuses with traditional buildings.
Nearly every study of campus community finds that small, private, rural colleges with traditional
campuses (like Dartmouth) have the strongest communities. Similarly, NYU’s high freshman
dropout rate is no doubt due in part to its ultra-urban environment: many students find out the
hard way that they’d prefer a school with a traditional campus. While there’s nothing more
exciting than an urban campus – NYU, Columbia, Yale, Georgetown – you should be very
careful choosing an urban school because the overwhelming majority of students prefer a
traditional campus. (An aside: Georgetown’s campus is somewhat traditional, though small, and
DC really isn’t a typical big city, but Georgetown does have unattractively modern high-rise
Visiting the campus will also give you a feel for the surrounding community. For example,
you will want to assess whether or not a car will be necessary (as they are at many large public
colleges). If the campus and surrounding community are small enough so that everything
is within walking distance, a car may actually be cumbersome. You will find that on many
campuses you will be required to park a great distance from your dorm, and countless college
seniors have tales of enormous parking tickets and fines that had to be paid before they could
graduate. And finally, the primary crime committed at colleges is theft, so the fewer valuables
you bring to college, the better—and the most valuable thing you can bring is your car.
Assessing the larger community in which a college is located seems relevant, but the importance
of such an assessment can be overrated. For example, many students who decline to consider
Vanderbilt because they think Nashville is “too Southern.” While this may be true, it’s difficult
to subscribe to the notion that one should discount a college because the larger community—the
surrounding neighborhood—may be undesirable.
If one followed this advice, one would discount colleges ranging from USC and UC Berkeley
to Chicago, Penn, Vassar, Columbia, Yale and numerous others because of the undesirability of
the surrounding neighborhoods. There is a balance between judging the college on its own merits
and gauging the safety and vitality of the surrounding neighborhoods, but it’s unproductive to
discount a college a priori because “Nashville is too Southern” or “New Haven is a rust-belt
town.” Those comments may be true, but it could still also be true that the college that’s perfect
for you is Vanderbilt.
This is not to imply that the surrounding town shouldn’t be considered: certainly, there are
exciting places to live (Boston, New York, Atlanta) and boring places to live, and this should be
factored in after you consider the college on its own merits.
Size. Colleges range from the small (Swarthmore, Drew, Colby, Kenyon, Pomona, Haverford, Stonehill),
to the medium (Yale, Princeton, Lehigh, Boston College), to the large (Penn, Cornell, NYU),
to the ridiculous (UT Austin, U. Michigan, U. Florida, Purdue). Small colleges are those that
have fewer than 4,000 students. There are many colleges, such as New College (FL), that have
considerably fewer than 2,000 students (your high school may have more students!). Medium
colleges range from 4,000 to 9,000 students; large have 9,000 to 20,000 students, and the
ridiculous have more than 20,000 students (sometimes over 30,000).
The size of the college can be crucial as it may be the difference between a personal learning
experience and an indifferent education factory. You will be a number at Michigan State – what
else would you expect from a college with nearly 50,000 students? (The average town in the
United States is smaller.) In fact, most small and medium colleges believe that the size of the
student body is so important that they work very hard to keep their colleges small: Williams and
Hamilton could admit twice as many students, but they don’t because they believe that a small
student body is vital to their educational mission.
If you don’t mind being a number and taught by graduate students, then save your money and attend a large public university. At a large university, you will be responsible for educating yourself and will save a lot of money. But if
you prefer small classes, interactive professors, and personal attention, then you should consider
small colleges. Keep in mind that one of the primary reasons you wish to apply to a private
college is to be a part of a community, which means that it makes no sense to apply to a large
private college. The best way to get a feeling for the size of the college is to visit the campus
during the academic year. It’s important to visit while the students are still there.
Reputation. According to a recent survey, the top college selection criterion of college freshmen
was “reputation.” What does this mean? No one knows. The reputation of a college is some
witches brew concocted from your parents’ advice, your friends’ opinions, something you
heard on the radio, something your older sister once said, a few reviews you read in books, a
silly “Best Party School” survey, a comment made by your college counselor, and the record
of the college’s basketball team. There are no relevant measurements of reputation and no
guidelines regarding this criterion that seems so important to high school students.
And yet sometimes, nothing else matters but the college’s reputation. Harvard is the #1 college
brand name in the world, so Harvard does not need to be concerned with the quality of its
undergraduate education because it knows the brand will sell. You will probably get a better
education at St. John’s College or Washington & Lee, but it’s hard to turn down the prestige
of a Harvard degree. If you’re going to college for an education, then be aware that sometimes
the top “brands” have the lowest quality (because they’re not selling quality; they’re selling the
brand name). If you’re going to college in order to go to grad school or get a high-paying job
right after graduation, then the college’s reputation will be important. Think of blue jeans: if you
wish to quickly impress someone, you will buy over-priced designer jeans; but if you want jeans
that will last, you will probably buy less expensive but more durable jeans. The reputation of the
label doesn’t necessarily correspond to the quality of the material.
Colleges have other types of reputations: male-friendly, extremist, low-school spirit, great parties, and so forth. Many of these reputations are earned. For example, colleges such as
Antioch, Brown, Dartmouth, and U. Michigan (Ann Arbor) all have reputations for being
antagonistic towards men. For example, Antioch has a campus rule that requires “willing and
verbal consent” at each stage of intimacy (sort of like getting someone to sign a waiver as you
round the bases). Such a rule results in a very stilted, abnormal environment for relationships.
(Frankly, it’s just weird. And perhaps not unrelated, Antioch shut down in 2008 … they hope to
re-open in Fall 2011.)
Other schools have reputations for being male-friendly (Davidson, Princeton, Vanderbilt,
Washington and Lee). Some schools are known for poor (or no) school spirit (Emory), others
known for being traditional (Hampden-Sydney), and still others get a bad reputation for banning
file-sharing even when it’s legal (NYU). It’s worth noting and investigating these reputations;
usually, they have a bit of truth to them.
Social Life. There are two sides to your college experience: academic and social. This may seem
obvious, but too many students (and parents) don’t fully consider the social side. College will
be a place you will live for four years, learn a lot, and (hopefully) grow up. The environment
that surrounds you is vital to your success—it should be a place you love and enjoy. It’s not
surprising that students who don’t like the social climate of their college often do not perform
very well academically.
So how do you find out about the social life at a college? Well, it’s impossible to really know
until you live there (as it’s impossible to really know what any place is like unless you live
there). It’s useless to ask the admissions office (they’ll say, “It’s great! We just spent ten billion
dollars on a new gym complete with a dozen coed clothing-optional hot tubs!”). The first step
is to visit the campus and stay overnight if possible. Talking to people you know who recently
attended the school is sometimes helpful, but it can be prejudicial. If your older friend is at Wake
Forest and hates it, that means that Wake Forest isn’t right for your friend. This information may
not apply to you (unless you’re exactly like him). It’s foolish to say, “I’m not applying to Brown
because my friend goes there and she hates it.” The opinions of students and recent alumni are
potentially helpful, but they are also only one piece of the puzzle.
Staying overnight, attending classes, going to parties, and loitering around the campus on a
Friday and Saturday during the school year can be very helpful. You should be able to get a good
feel for campus social life. For example, you may discover that everyone deserts the campus
during weekends and goes to the nearest big city (which isn’t conducive to building a close
community) or you may find that most stay on campus and party (New College, Dartmouth),
which tends to build friendships (and rumors).
Campus clubs and organizations are also a sign of campus life. However, it’s important that
you actually investigate the club’s activities. Nearly every college view book or directory lists
dozens (if not hundreds) of clubs ranging from the Eco-Lesbians for Dolphin-Safe Tuna Club to
the Libertarian Student Union (not to mention a newspaper, College Republicans, Rugby club,
and so forth). However, many of these clubs may only exist on paper. You may find out that
the club in which you’re interested is, in fact, only two boring anthropology majors who meet
once a semester over a pizza, or the campus newspaper is only one guy with a camera. While
on campus, seek out the leaders of the club(s) in which you’re interested, and talk to them. If
possible, attend a club event. The admissions office should give you the information you need.
By directly investigating the vitality of clubs, you will get a decent idea of campus life.
***Check out the article “Frat Life & Campus Culture” for more on social life!***