How do you know if a college is right for you?


MPR's current Question of the Day, "How do you know if a college is right for you?" has produced some good tips so far, as well as a little snark and cynicism.

(The tips so far tend to be practical. They don't address the emotional ties that prospective students form to a college.)

James writes that one should consider:

1) Price, including travel and other costs.

2) The quality of their placement office. If they don't actually help you get a job when you graduate, what's the point?

3) Location. Over the 4+ years, you will build a network that can be useful if you plan to live somewhere near it once you graduate.

4) Quality of the other students attending. What is the ACT/SAT cutoff at the low end. If it is really low, the quality of the experience is going to be diminished.

5) All the other stuff. Does it have your major? Do people tend to graduate in 4 years? etc..

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Point #3 is one of those practical things, but key, I think -- and perhaps the most overlooked.

Many colleges have only local or regional reputations. And if students apply for jobs in industries outside their field, the academic renown of their program or college may be largely lost.

Telling a potential employer at an HR gig in Edina that your San Jose State widget management program is #3 in the country will likely draw a blank stare. It might be better for a Minnesotan to: 1) go to the beloved San Jose State and then search for a job in Silicon Valley; 2) go to a Minnesota or Midwestern college if he or she wants to work here; or 3) make sure that next job is in widget manufacturing -- preferably, of course, in the region of the college.

(Hint: As good as they may be, I'd never really heard of Carleton, Macalester, Hamline or any other Minnesota private college before I moved to St. Paul. And my only knowledge of the University of Minnesota was a reference to it in The Paper Chase.)

If students know what they want to study and where they want to live from the get-go, #3 might be at the top of the list of considerations.

Better yet, if students see a degree only as a ticket to a good job, perhaps they should consider the strategy mentioned in this past post:

  • Find companies that do what they want to do.

  • Find out which universities those companies recruit from.

  • Go to one of those universities.

Again, all of the above comes solely from the college-as-meal-ticket perspective.

Looking at other views, Mark sounds pretty wary of admissions counselors. (I'm assuming he means those representing colleges, not the ones employed by high schools):

One thing I tell my students is to NOT pay too much heed to all the great things the admissions counselors will tell them. This person's job is basically one of "head-hunter" and this person actually has little, if any, interest in actually making sure the student is a good fit for the college, and vice-versa. A potential student need to schedule at least a couple visits to the school, sit in on a few classes, eat in the cafeteria, tour the dorms, and chat with actual students about their experience.

Then there's Emery, who sounds a little exasperated:

This year our very nice and together-seeming babysitter announced he was planning to major in journo. "Don't know if that's such a good idea," I said. And laid out the reasons.

He came back a month later and said he'd taken my advice to heart and was going to major in Phys Ed instead.

That's the last time I offer anybody advice on college. Probably including my own kids.

Feel free to add your two cents here.