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Colleges: Size, Reputation and Social Life

The second column in a five-part series analyzing the different factors to consider when choosing a college

Editor's note: This is the second in a five-part series that looks at factors to consider when choosing a college. The first looked at location.

Size

Colleges range from the small (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 more than 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 that 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 seem 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 are 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 tend 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.

This is the second in a five-part series. The next installment will look at fraternities, sororities & crime.

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