Thanks to one of my college roommates and my wife for their “Choosing a College 2” comments which inspired this post.
My roommate wrote, “. . . my sense is that right from the beginning, that a small private school is more personal and less bureaucratic. You feel more looked after, e.g., you meet with your academic advisor and discuss what classes and teacher would be good for you to take and its done, and the effort to speak to a teacher is a lot easier when you have a freshman class of 25 rather than of 250. It (connecting with profs) can be done, but it takes more work inititative.”
My wife wrote, “I would like to remind people of the community college choice. For some, even public institutions mean getting into debt, while some community colleges offer a fine start to a four year education at a lower price and are often overlooked.”
I agree that students receive a lot more personal attention at small, private liberal arts colleges; however, sometimes personal attention compromises self initiative and personal responsibility. I think I was better off finding my way without any hand holding. And I developed what I think of as “bureaucracy literacy” or the ability to successfully negotiate a large, relatively impersonal institution. As just one example, in order to save time and energy, I learned to buy my books at the end of each term before leaving town instead of at the beginning after returning.
Instead of having a conversation about different possibilities, too many of my advisees expect me to tell them what to take. In part, I suspect that’s the result of parents doing far too many things for their children for far too long (also known as helicopter parenting). Case in point. I had a call the other day from the parent of a prospective masters student. She was calling on behalf of her daughter. She was worried her grade point average might not be high enough. Here’s what I wanted to say, but didn’t, “Her g.p.a. is less problematic than the fact that you made this call on her behalf.”
Granted I’m a sample of one, but at my large public I grew up quicker than I otherwise would have. It wasn’t easy, but that’s my point, the obstacles forced me to find my way and mature. My first quarter was especially tough because I didn’t get on campus housing. I lived in a university apartment building five miles from campus. One night during dead week, the shuttle didn’t run late enough for me to attend a review session so I rode my bike. The SoCal skies opened and I got literally drenched. I was proud of myself for gutting it out. It would have been easy to skip the review session, but truth be told, I was afraid of failing and knew I needed every edge possible.
Therein lies another insight, choose a college where initially you might be in over your head. Then spend the first year cycling through rainstorms to catch up to your peers.
Onto the community college suggestion. No doubt they are about to be inundated with students who are unable to afford four year colleges and universities. Here’s a quote from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education study of enrollment trends, “Mirroring trends in retail sales, students are trading down. Those who might have attended pricey private colleges are looking more seriously at public universities. Those who might have attended state universities or regional public universities are now going to community colleges.” Community college enrollment is up 8% in 2008.
I wonder though whether the least expensive option is the best. Conventional wisdom suggests teacher quality is the key variable in educational excellence and I agree in part. What’s always overlooked though is student motivation and what might be referred to as “classroom juice or energy.” Classrooms are organic and the more curious, engaged, and ambitious the students, the easier it is for the teacher to create positive intellectual momentum.
Put differently, the best teachers are orchestra conductors who create the conditions for students to thoughtfully interact so that they learn from one another and the sum equals more than individual parts. My college bound daughter just received a packet of information from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I don’t know about her, but after reading it, I want to enroll. Smallish school with students from all 50 states and 92 countries.
Cynics will say that stat is just a part of an ongoing, giant, selective liberal arts college public relations competition with little bearing on campus life. I’d beg to differ. What better way to infuse global perspectives throughout the curriculum than attract students from all over the world. Even better if you can attract enough to avoid the pitfalls of tokenism.
Some curious, engaged, and ambitious students choose community colleges with a plan to transfer to a four year college or university, and they follow through, and they should be applauded. I just don’t know what percentage. Also, those students commute, so the opportunity cost is the substantive learning that continues well after class in four year schools with vibrant extracurricular programs.
In that context, here’s a paragraph from the website of another college A is interested in.
The quality of campus discourse at X, formal and informal, is an extension of the academic quality of the students we attract and admit. Conversation here is usually challenging and thought-provoking, invariably civil and well-informed. Every X student is exceptionally strong academically. But nonacademic achievements—from crusading to save a local wetland to making music with a punk-funk band—make for a lively campus, too. That’s why, in selecting each incoming class, we look beyond the stereotypical “well-rounded student.” Instead, we look for those who bring a mix of passions, eccentricities, and ambitions to create a well-rounded campus community. If there is a single characteristic that sets X students apart from other highly talented students, it is their tendency to excel in more than one way.
I suggest A and her friends pick a college where the educative potential of the informal educational opportunities complement the formal. Put differently, look for late night juice. I remember sitting up late with my college roommate sometimes watching Saturday Night Live, but at other times comparing and contrasting the lives of Jesus and Freud. I was studying the early Christian movement, he was studying psychology and psychohistory. We learned a lot from one another.
Pick a college where a majority of people are sober, well rounded, intellectually alive both in and outside of class. The first of those three is not that easy and probably deserves a separate post.