Ask five different people and you will probable get five different answers as to what makes a good college. Last Sunday when I sent out my weekly newsletter, I included a link to an article from the New York Times under More to Read from Other Places titled, “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems.” I included it because I thought the overall message was an important one for parents and students to understand with respect to the college search: College isn’t getting harder to get into. Acceptance numbers are going down because students are applying to more colleges. However, what stuck with me most from the article was the author’s definition of a “good” college.
The article implies that a “good” college is one at the very top – an elite college. The colleges he mentions in the article include Stanford, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard, Notre Dame, Wellesley, and University of Michigan. It played right into a classic parental fear: If my student doesn’t apply to and get into one of the top schools in the country, he or she will not be set up for the best success in life.
Do I agree with that? No! I don’t think everyone should focus their college search on getting into elite colleges.
I think that what makes a good college is different for every student and needs to account for the following factors:
- Rigor – You want to know that your student will thrive in the environment. The classes should offer an appropriate level of challenge, but this is a delicate balance. You don’t want your student to be overwhelmed, but you don’t want him/her to be bored either.
- Size – Your student needs to feel comfortable with the size of the campus and the size of the classes.
- Learning Style – Some students need a mostly hands-on environment. For example, many artistic students will do better in an art school environment than in a traditional college that aims to educate students to be well-rounded. It will vary based on the student’s career goals and the learning environments that helped him or her be most successful in high school.
- Location – I think the most important thing, location-wise, is the type of community where the school is located. Some students need the excitement of a big city while others need the quiet of a rural location.
- Social Fit – Will your student easily find others whose idea of a “fun Saturday night” matches with hers/his? Is the school large enough that your student will find a group of others with the same interests? Is it a small school with an eclectic mix of students who all seem content to learn from their differences? Does the school seem cliquey? Answering these questions is going to require at least one visit and some conversations with current students.
When students are just starting to build a list of potential colleges, how do they find schools that might be a good college for them?
- Use early college visits to narrow down preferences on size and location.
- Have your student think about the classes he/she enjoyed most in high school and why. This will help you guide the college search with respect to learning style and rigor.
- Use your student’s first ACT or SAT score to find potential college matches. Look for schools where your student falls into the middle 50% of scores for admitted freshmen. This statistic is pretty easy to find either on college search sites or by exploring the Admissions area of a school’s website. There is nothing wrong with students attending a college where they fall above the middle 50% range. In fact, these can offer some of the best merit scholarship opportunities. However, they may want to look for these schools to offer an Honors Program or Honors College that will offer the rigor they need.
- Hear what current students have to say. It is best if you can talk to a current student face-to-face. Ask questions about what the school is really like, both in and out of the classroom. Look for someone who will be objective – not a campus tour guide. There also sites that allow current students to post reviews of their schools. Niche is my favorite one to use.
I believe that what makes a good college is different for every student. Some students are perfect candidates, both academically and financially, to attend elite colleges. Other students are not and should not stress out about it. The college experience and the long lasting takeaways from it are more about what a student makes of the experience than the school name on the diploma.