Beyond Prestige: The Right Way to Choose a College

04/14/2015 04:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

The following is cross-posted with Valerie Strauss' blog on The Washington Post.

In April each year, I post something about college choice. Campuses like mine this time of year welcome hundreds of visitors who move around the grounds with assurance, but also with plenty of questions. These are the newly admitted members of the class of 2019, and they are now trying to decide which school is the right choice for the next four years. April is decision time, and these anxious high school seniors must figure out which college or university will provide the best combination of resources and challenges to enable them to thrive for four years in ways that they will build on for the rest of their lives.

For many, of course, the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has provided the most generous financial aid package? But since the differences in this regard are often small in comparison with the overall costs, the price tag may not tip the balance. Of course, for some families it will, and families must often make hard choices about what they can afford. At least they can now do so with the help of "net-price calculators" that give a fair account of true costs.

I work (and once was a student) at Wesleyan University, which is like the Ivies and a small number of other schools across the country that pledge to meet the full financial need of students. But there are often serious differences among aid packages, despite the common formula that many schools use to determine need. "Middle class" aid at the wealthiest institutions is directed at the top 5 percent of the income bracket.

At Wesleyan, we have developed a three-year (plus some half summers) program that cuts more than 20 percent off the total price for a BA. This is a significant affordability initiative, but most students turn out not to be in any rush (despite the high cost) to leave campus. Other schools are finding different mechanisms to make their undergraduate degrees more flexible and affordable. But if you are trying to decide among schools that offer comparable financial aid, how to make the decision?

Size, of course, matters. Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one's education. Campuses in New York, Boston and Chicago, for example, have become increasingly popular. If one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do (you can see my bias here). All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of teacher/scholars, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service.

But small liberal arts schools are hardly for everyone. My sons attended community colleges for the beginning of their educations, and they had dedicated teachers and excellent courses. I taught for over a decade at Scripps College, and I learned there first-hand the value of women's colleges. A friend visited recently and we reminisced with his daughter about the excitement and vitality of large state universities. There is no one size fits all here.

Research universities promise cosmopolitan communities that include strong professional schools and graduate students with intense research agendas. These universities have become welcoming semi-urban environments. But what sets one school apart from another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are the members of the class of 2019 trying to see when they now return to SUNY and Ohio State, Brown and Williams, Yale and Northwestern, or Grinnell and Pomona?

American higher education has lately been filled with a great deal of self-doubt, and some of it will turn out to produce changes that lead to greater affordability and educational punch. Although I teach at a small campus, I've also taught MOOCs with many thousands of students following along. The strength of American higher ed is our diversity and our willingness to experiment with new modes of teaching and learning.

This time of year, students have all the facts they need and are trying to discern the soft stuff -- the personalities of each school. Sure, they know that there are real differences in the course of study at various places. Some, like Columbia University and the University of Chicago, have a tried and true core curriculum that each student is required to take. Others, like Amherst and Wesleyan, have only guidelines and advisers but no required courses. After they digest these kinds of differences visible on websites and in catalogs, visiting students are trying to imagine themselves on the campus among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of each place; they are making their best guesses as to whether they will be happy in a particular context. The thousands of students traveling with their families across the country this month will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Can I see myself as part of this community? Would I be happy here?

Now I know that there are lots of specific questions that parents (and sometimes students) want answered in these return visits to campuses: How hard is it to get into the classes you want? How small are the classes to which students have access in the first two years? What is the quality of the athletic facilities and how easy is it to access them? The same question about quality and accessibility comes up in regard to arts facilities. Are there internships, and does the school help students prepare for life after graduation (including jobs, graduate and professional programs)? What will it mean to be an alumnus of Reed rather than Vanderbilt? And above all: Will I be more likely to get a good job if I attend this school?!

Many students today seem to think they should pick the university at which they will acquire the credential that will land them the most highly paid job. This is a sad (and ultimately impractical) narrowing of what a college education should provide. Sure, one should leave college with the ability to compete for gainful employment. But that first job should be the worst job you'll ever have, and your undergraduate years should prepare you for more than just entry into the workforce.

Your college education should prepare you to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one's university years. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn't even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction. A strong college education, one infused with liberal learning, helps create what philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called "new spaces for diverse possibilities of flourishing."

Discovering these possibilities for flourishing is the opposite of trying to figure out how to conform to the world as it is. That's a losing proposition, not least because the world is changing so rapidly; tomorrow it won't be how it is today. When you flourish, you find ways of shaping change, not just ways of coping with it. Those who get the most out of college are often anti-conformists aiming to find out who they are and what kind of work they will find most meaningful. They are not ready simply to accept someone else's assignment. Those who get the most out of college expand the horizons in which they can lead a life of meaning and purpose.

These, I realize, may sound like awfully highfalutin' phrases to someone trying to decide big school or small school... lots of requirements or open curriculum... great campus social life or wonderful experience off-campus. And thinking about long term flourishing doesn't give you at pass at being able to compete successfully for that first job.

I certainly encourage families to ask all these questions, and dozens of others. But as I discuss schools with alumni, family and friends, I find myself suggesting that they get a feel for the student culture of the schools in which they are interested. Sure, administrators and faculty plan the guidelines for education and co-curricular activities, but it's the evolution of student culture over many years that comes to define the way a place feels to the young men and women who spend these transitional years on campus. Students -- not teachers and officials -- make that culture. At Duke, for example, there are extraordinary programs and deep research going on. But over several weeks of the spring semester, it's Blue Devil basketball frenzy that takes over campus culture. At USC, the entertainment industry seeps into the fabric of the place, even when the subject areas are quite distant from Hollywood. At Claremont McKenna College, interest in the intersection of economics and politics remains an anchor of the curriculum, and that's reflected in the undergraduate culture. Here at Wesleyan, the fastest growing majors are in the sciences. But the students have created vibrant music and film contexts that seem to fuel independent rock and hip-hop on the one hand, and popular film and TV on the other. Although most students here study neither music nor film, the energy of these areas percolates around campus.

The culture of America's most intellectually alive campuses are places that nurture and respond to the energies of their students. Maybe that tells us what students and their families are trying to capture in these return April visits to campus. They want to feel the energy percolating at Wisconsin and Cal, Tufts and Cornell, Georgetown and Vassar. That's how they'll know if this is the kind of energy that they can imagine contributing to and being turned on by. And when they feel that energetic compatibility, they are ready to make the choice.

Your college choice isn't just about "fit" and "comfort"; and it certainly shouldn't be reduced to the prestige of the school or the amenities it offers. Your college choice should reflect your aspirations, where you can imagine yourself discovering more about the world and your capacities to interact with it. The college you choose should be a place at which you can thrive, finding out so much more about yourself as you also discover how the world works, how to make meaning from it and how you might contribute to it.

Those kinds of discoveries will set you in good stead for a lot more than four years.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014).