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:
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:
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 and Amherst to prestigious Yale and Columbia. Most of the colleges have the “classic college” look—beautiful campuses with red brick or neo-Gothic buildings. The exceptions to the “classic campus” 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.
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.
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. If you’re looking for a good public school or a traditional private school, the south is the place for you.
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-plus 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 the “useful.”
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 advantage.
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).
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 school 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.
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 Washington, D.C. really isn’t a typical big city, but Georgetown does have unattractively modern high-rise dorms.)
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.
This is the first in a five-part series. The next installment will look at size, reputation & social life.