In thousands of homes with high school seniors aspiring to study at selective schools, the time has come for making tough choices. The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many 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. I work at Wesleyan University, which is like the Ivies and a small number of other schools across the country that admit students irrespective of their ability to pay. These schools meet the full need of students, according to a formula developed by the government over several years. 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. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But 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. 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. 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? I've been thinking about this as I see scores of families visiting my campus each day. These are often return visitors taking another look now that the students have been accepted to the class of 2014. What are they trying to see when they visit Brown and Wesleyan, Yale and Northwestern, or Grinnell and Pomona?
Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that their students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern 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 advisors but no required courses. After they digest these kind of differences visible on websites and in catalogues, 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 students have access to 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?
I certainly encourage families to ask all these questions, and dozens of others. But as I discuss schools with alumni, family and friends this year 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 (especially this year), it's Blue Devil basketball frenzy that takes over campus culture. At Middlebury, there is currently an energetic student debate about the meal plan, which many students see as a defining element in their campus experience. At USC, the entertainment industry seeps into the fabric of the place, even when the subject areas are quite distant from Hollywood. Here at Wesleyan, 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.
So maybe that's what students and their families are trying to capture in these return April visits to campus. They want to feel the energy percolating at Tufts and Cornell, Oberlin and Skidmore. 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.