Finding the right “college fit” is more complicated than simply scanning Top 10 rankings, visiting a campus, or picking a school based on reputation and prestige. Sending a child to college is like planting a tree: you need to select an appropriate place, with the right sunlight, water, soil and fertilizer to match the plant. A college education is evolutionary, and the selection of the right school is a life-changing decision, for better or worse.
Published rankings are valuable starting points, but they are only starting points. No single person has attended all of the top universities, so realize that rankings are stitched together from bits and pieces of information. The criteria and formulas used to create rankings are non-scientific, developed and changed primarily to create “news.” Rankings are merely rough guesses, but if you look carefully, you may find some colleges that you had not considered before.
Only a few universities have the money to provide the very best education in all academic areas. Research each college’s academic strengths carefully. Make sure that the Major you are considering has strong faculty, extensive resources, and a challenging curriculum. Some students find out too late that their college classes are easier than what they encountered in high school.
Consider not just the curriculum, but also the teaching methods of each university. Colleges are comprised of Deans and professors who devote their lives determining not only what to teach, but how to teach. Everybody learns differently, and colleges teach differently. Does your student learn better by listening, by watching, by doing, or by interacting? Look deeply not only into the varied learning environments that colleges provide, but also into the learning abilities and preferences of the student.
Investigate whether a college allows cross-registration into other programs. Several schools allow students to study at other colleges. For example, the colleges in the Boston Consortium – and there are now 16 of them – have incredibly flexible cross-registration policies. Even within one school, some colleges permit undergraduates to study in their graduate schools, while others do not.
Young people usually do not know what they wish to study, nor do they have a well-defined career path when they exit high school. Their lack of information creates problems when they try to develop life paths. In a college environment – where parents and counselors are no longer readily available – young students make uncertain decisions. They have never seen the subjects taught in college, and they have no experience in the job market. Because large universities push students to select majors immediately (even before arriving on campus), their students often change majors, sometimes multiple times. This adds years to college, slowing progress and raising costs. However, colleges that allow one or two years before selecting a major have much better on-time graduation rates. Also notice how each of these colleges use different styles of curricula for training their freshmen and sophomores, from guided exploration to heavy requirements to no requirements at all.
Even a college calendar can greatly influence the educational experience. Students in universities that use a quarter system (in which students study in 3 of 4 calendar quarters) usually take more classes than those studying in a semester system. Also be aware that universities which require summer study create an environment that does not promote summer internships. Students who do not “get out there” before graduation have less-developed resumes and, regardless of the quality of their education, are at a disadvantage in obtaining jobs.
A multitude of factors – not just academics, but extracurricular activities, location, and the student body profile and architecture – determine the true quality of a college education. Reading lists is only scratching the surface.