11/11/2014 08:41 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

The College Olympics: How to Choose the Right College and How to Get the Right College to Choose You

I have been blogging for Huffington Post on Higher Education for a few years and have been given a contract to write a short book tentatively titled: The Joy and Practicality of Learning: Succeeding in College and Beyond.

What follows is a sequel to "How to Prepare for College" and "Nineteen Suggestions for College Freshmen."

Finding the right fit for college is a complex process requiring considerable effort.

1) Find a match between your interests and the schools you apply to. You need to decide whether you prefer a rural or urban environment, whether distance from home is important, whether you wish to go to a school that foregrounds your particular religion, whether the size of the enrollment matters, and whether you want a true campus experience where students live on campus and near classrooms. You want to learn about the size of classes, whether they are taught by senior faculty or adjuncts and teaching assistants, and whether undergraduates--especially in the sciences and engineering but also the in the social sciences and the humanities--have a chance to do advanced research. You might also think about the physical facilities and the activities that interest you. You wouldn't go to the University of Florida if skiing were an important activity.

2) Find a match between your high school record and abilities and the schools to which you apply. You can find out whether your grades, rank in class and SAT and/or ACT scores meet the qualifications of the schools that interest you. Standard tests are a way that colleges get data that shows them whether an A in one school equals an A in another. But some diligent and imaginative students do not test well and are at a disadvantage. While tutoring or enrollment in private classes can bridge the testing problem they are not guarantees to more successful college applications, in part because so many people do some kind of test preparation. Indeed, in some communities even those who test well take such courses.

Presumably in your freshmen year of high school you have begun the process of learning what courses are necessary and have taken the courses that you need to apply to specific colleges. If you are thinking of elite colleges or universities (and what is elite is debatable)--or, indeed, any of the flagship campuses of four year state colleges, many of which have select programs for their best students--you should have taken Honors and Advanced Placement courses.

When we think of elite and selective schools we think of such schools as the Ivies, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Duke, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and many of our great state universities like Berkeley, UCLA, Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Texas, along with quite a number of smaller private colleges from Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, and Middlebury in the Northeast to Reed and the five Claremont colleges out West. But we need to think, too, of such excellent if slightly less prestigious and often less costly universities -especially for state residents--such as (to name a few) Binghamton and Buffalo of the New York State system, the University of Vermont, the University of Oregon, the University of Maryland, and Penn State. (A useful web site is "College Confidential").

In the application process, note that extra-curricular activities and community service matter. But it is better to excel in and/or play a leadership role in one or two activities than to be a participant in a long list.

For non-elite schools, you should investigate the graduation rate and the time from matriculation to commencement.

3) Find a match between the anticipated costs and your ability to pay. Learn what kind of financial aid is available to you and whether that aid takes the form of scholarships, work study jobs, other jobs, or loans. Taking into consideration tuition, room and board, travel costs and allowing some funds for miscellaneous costs, make up budgets for the colleges that interest you.

How much debt you should incur depends on many factors, including your expected future earnings, but be careful about mortgaging your future. In past decades, especially the 1970s and 1980s, because of high inflation students were repaying loans more easily because the dollar they borrowed was worth much more than the dollar they repaid, but this has not been the case for some years. Of course now fixed interest rates are lower than they have been.

How will you pay for college if your parents cannot afford it or are unwilling to pay for most or all of it? The latter problem is sometimes fixed by legally declaring yourself to be an independent adult without supporting family in which cases your aid will be based on your own earnings and assets; be forewarned that this process is not easy. (See " What can you do if your parents refuse to help?").

The good news for those families of modest means is that a sustained effort is being made to help low-income high achievers get the necessary financial support to thrive in college. Whether this effort at economic diversity will succeed depends in part on whether the colleges themselves will sacrifice tuition revenue in the interests of economic diversity. As David Leonardt points out, "On some campuses, including Caltech, Dartmouth, Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis, fewer than 15 percent of entering students receive federal Pell grants, which go roughly to students from the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution. One problem is that supporting economic diversity depends on the school's endowment, and those with lower endowments per student have fewer resources.

But more good news is that many of the elite colleges do need-blind admissions and have the resources to help those whom they admit and who need financial assistance. One should not be scared off by "sticker price," because there are means of getting significant support. Also, many schools offer merit scholarships to attract top students. The more highly endowed schools will offer an aid package with a large grant component. Other good news is that the US Department of Education has the Pell Grant program to help fund college education and the maximum 2014-2015 grant is $5730. For the Ivies and other schools with comparatively large endowments, qualification for the Pell is a signal to schools to provide--in almost all cases--generous aid packages. Further good news is there are many other scholarship programs, including those restricted to residents in each state; in New York State these range from $500 to $1500. In addition, there are many private scholarships administered by such organizations as the Rotary, although the latter focuses on study abroad.

Although Cornell does not have the resources of Harvard, Yale or Princeton, in the Cornell class of 2018, consisting of 3261 students, 47.8 percent were eligible for need-based aid and 44.4 percent received need based aid from Cornell sources, averaging $35,735 in grant aid--which does not have to be repaid-- and $5,783 in loans.

Another source of scholarships is athletics, but be aware that neither the Ivies or the (usually) smaller colleges in Division Three offer athletic scholarships. Be aware, too, that many more parents think that their children are candidates for athletic scholarships than there are scholarships and that Division One scholarships often have expectations for practice, conditioning, travel, and competition that take significant time from studies. New rulings seem to allow some schools to give more aid than in the past, but at what price to the student?

In addition, there are various loan programs, although I am wary of loans that saddle young people with enormous debts that can affect their ability to buy a home, start a family, choose a low-paying career such as social work or elementary and secondary school teaching, as well as prepare for retirement. In fact a handful of top universities have eliminated loans from aid packages and I expect more to follow.

Avoid for-profit colleges, many of which have engaged in fraudulent practices and are responsible for a disproportionate amount of student loan defaults. Several government studies have exposed these schools as taking advantage of gullible students and making exaggerated claims.

4) One key to college success is finding professors who are interested in you; it is worth researching whether teaching and mentoring are stressed at the colleges to which you apply.

Before you decide where to apply, the more you can learn about the school and the departments and professors that interest you, the better.

Both small colleges and large universities have great teachers, but the latter will have more courses taught and graded by graduate students who may also serve in the sciences as lab instructors. On the other hand, research universities will offer a wider variety of courses and programs.

Is it better, you might ask, to work with a world-class scholar at a top research university who opens the doors to exciting and complex projects and ideas than with a capable, enthusiastic professor who does little or no research? Or are you more likely to find at an excellent small college a professor who challenges you and shows interest in your growth as a person?

There is no one answer, but in my experience you are just as likely to find the ideal mentor at a large university as at a small college. Katherine Burroughs, Cornell '85 recalls: "What is really remarkable though is notwithstanding the size of [Cornell}and the focus on being a research institution, I can count on a few fingers the bad experiences."

Keep in mind that major research universities can offer students opportunities to work with senior scholars on grants and give you a leg up for graduate school. There are programs like Cornell's Presidential Research Scholars that enable student to do independent research under the auspices of a senior scholar; these programs are not limited to the sciences but can include the humanities.

My sense is that teaching at research universities, including teaching in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, has improved gradually and dramatically in recent decades. At research universities, teaching effectiveness is not only more a component in tenure decisions but is also stressed more in the administration's review of a department's and individual performances than used to be the case. But certainly at some universities teaching should be stressed in some disciplines more than it is.

Because of a tight job market, professors trained at the strongest graduate programs are everywhere now, and you will be able to find excellent mentors not only at the most selective colleges and flagship state universities, but at almost any college, including community colleges.

5) Suggestions #1-#4 means that you need to do the necessary research. This means finding the tine to do some reading in catalogues and online sites--and, if possible speaking to people attending the colleges that interest you. Talk not only to your guidance counselor or the person handling college applications, but also to teachers whom you respect.

6) Visiting colleges is a good idea but don't overestimate what you learn in a campus visit. The best visits are overnight ones during the week that include living in the dorms and visiting classes rather than visits on football weekends at schools where football is foregrounded.

If you are a prospective athlete you will meet the coach and if he or she is interested in you as a potential player, you may be recruited with tales of championships and even exposed to campus partying, especially on weekends. You need to look at athletic facilities, find out how likely you are to play, and if you are offered an athletic scholarship, find out whether you lose that if you are injured or if you or the university decides you are not going to be on the team You need to do some research into whether the school is using you to bolster its athletic reputation or if it is really interested in your getting an education. There has been ample evidence that some schools universities are not educating many of its top athletes, especially in visible and revenue earning sports.

The worst reason to go to any college is because you think there will be lots of partying and sometimes eighteen year olds forget this.

7) Early decision (which is binding if the college accepts you and usually requires an application in November) and early action (which does not require a commitment until the regular commitment deadline of May 1) are often good options and in many elite schools give you a better chance of being admitted. For either, you apply to only one school. Early action still gives you a chance to apply elsewhere and compare financial aid offers. However, if you do early decision, you cannot compare financial aid packages; for those needing aid, early decision may not be the best alternative.

In my limited experience on admission committees at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences those deferred during the process of admitting early decision applicants do not usually get admitted later. Nor are many students admitted from the so-called wait list. My guess is that this is true at virtually all the select schools and if you are deferred or waitlisted, you need to find out the facts on these matters. Your slim chances of being admitted off the wait list are increased by writing an enthusiastic letter expressing your strong interest, but don't become a nuisance by frequent writing and calling.

8) For those taking part in the regular application process or those who are rejected or deferred in the early decision or early action process, "safety schools"--those whom research plus your guidance counselor find are likely to admit you-- are a good way to avoid disappointment.

9) Think of the college admission process as an Olympic event in which you do your best, but if you don't get admitted where you want to be, be a good sport and realize this is NOT a judgment on your life to date or your potential. What you do at college is far more important than where you do it.

10) Once you have made a choice, commit yourself fully to that choice rather than thinking about "would haves" and "should haves" or what might have been.

11) Transferring is a possibility--and some schools give students "guaranteed transfer" if they meet certain stipulations--but in most cases the best thing is to give your all at the school in which you enroll.

If you are doubtful about which field you want to go into, choose a larger university with many choices of fields in which to major. That choice may be more important in STEM because you are preparing for a specific career than it is in the liberal arts where your skills in reading, writing, thinking analytically, making oral presentations, and summoning evidence are most important; in some liberal arts fields, you can move readily from one area to another. (See my "Why Study the Arts and the Humanities)."

In general it is easier to transfer from science and engineering programs into liberal arts than vice versa. Put another way, if you are interested in STEM, it is best to start in STEM.

12) One way to save on costs is to apply to a Canadian University or a university abroad. Canadian universities often do not require standard test scores or recommendations or essays--and some only require senior grades-- but they do give preference to students in their province. Canadian students submit their application to an application service or to the university and list their preference order. (See "10 Reasons to Attend Canadian Universities").

At Queen's University, one of Canada's elite schools, an American student's costs for tuition plus room and board might be in the neighborhood of two-thirds of an elite American school. Not only are there merit scholarships for international students, but you can also still apply for loans offered by the US government under the Stafford Program and PLUSloan programs.

Universities in countries other than Canada are also possible choices and will be less costly than the most expensive US universities (See: "The Complete University Guide").

British Universities require the Universities and College Admission Service Application.
Only Oxford and Cambridge require applicant interviews; both welcome but do not require SAT and ACT test scores. For Oxford and Cambridge, an essay is also required but it is, rather than a personal essay, one focusing on your academic plans.

Alternative Paths to a College Education

But there are many other scenarios other than the college Olympics. Great teaching and mentoring can take place at Community Colleges and commuting four-year schools. When cost is an issue or when you are undecided on your direction, commuting to college can make a great deal of sense, and so can spending your first two college years getting an associate degree at a Community College.

Some states have innovative programs for getting a college degree. For example, New York's Empire State College has a fully accredited program for associate and bachelor degrees which allows a combination of online and on site courses and even gives college credit for certain kinds of work experience.

Questions that are part of the process for many young people:

Is college for everyone? Do you want to go to college upon high school graduation or would it be better to go into the Armed Service and go to college later when the Service will pay much of the costs? (See, for example, "US Army Benefits"). What if you have had to work for some years to support a family? What if, because of financial reasons, you are thinking of going to college part-time? What if you didn't do so well in high school, but now, after working or military experience, you feel ready for college? What if you need, for family and personal reasons, to stay home?

For some students, the answers to the foregoing questions will lead to a decision to begin your higher education at community colleges. Despite the focus in my earlier comments on "elite" and "selective" colleges, we need to remember almost half of US undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges and many more are in four-year commuter colleges where the road from high school matriculation to graduation can be difficult.

In "Community College Students Face a Very Long Road to Graduation," part of a series focusing on LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York City, Gina Bellafonte writes:

In recent years, mounting concerns about inequality have fixated on the need for greater economic diversity at elite colleges, but the interest has tended to obscure the fact that the vast majority of high school students -- including the wealthiest -- will never go to Stanford or the University of Chicago or Yale. Even if each of U.S. News and World Report's 25 top-ranked universities committed to turning over all of its spots to poor students, the effort would serve fewer than 218,000 of them. Community colleges have 7.7 million students enrolled, 45 percent of all undergraduates in the country. . . .

More than 70 percent of LaGuardia students come from families with incomes of less than $25,000 a year. The college reports that 70 percent of its full-time students who graduated after six years transferred to four-year colleges, compared with just 18 percent nationally, but only a quarter of LaGuardia students received an associate degree within six years.

Students at community college at times do not have access to the mentors and counselors who understand the ins and outs of transferring to four-year schools. If you take this route, you need to educate yourself on these matters and, in the best case, find mentors among your teachers and advising deans who will help you.

My former Cornell English Department colleague, Phillip Marcus, now teaching at a less selective four year college, Florida International, eloquently reminds me that there is world quite different from Cornell and other prestige schools, a world in which professors face challenges that Ivy League and other elite schools can hardly imagine:

My own experience for the past twenty years would be quite different from yours as 80% of our 60,000 students are minorities (Hispanic, African-American, Afro-Caribbean) and most of them come from poor families and almost all work part time or even full time while carrying full loads of classes. I always have students who can't afford the textbooks. . . .

My students here face so many daunting challenges just to afford to go, though our cost is about 50 K lower per year than [Cornell]. . . As an example of differences between CU and FIU, the state mandates that we submit textbook orders very early, because a great number of our students simply cannot afford to buy new books and must search for used ones. Often the bargain books don't arrive in time and students are without books during the first crucial weeks of the semester.

To give another perspective that shows how difficult success at college can be for those marginally prepared, I cite Wendy Yoder, Retention Coordinator at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, another non-elite four year university:

Southwestern is . . . dedicated to students and willing to implement whatever changes necessary to optimize the success of our students. . . [W]e sometimes overlook the natural waning process that occurs between a freshman and senior class. College is not for everyone, but I believe that we can make a positive influence in the lives of our students even if they decide on another path in the future.

Despite these difficulties, four year schools like Florida International and Southwestern Oklahoma, where many and in some places most students are commuters, provide a viable alternative to the more expensive colleges and offer students without great means and perhaps honor grades in high school a chance to earn the necessary college degree to find a good job and make a difference in their communities. Similarly, community colleges play a crucial role for a great many students. They are often feeder schools for state university systems and provide a resource for upward mobility. They offer associate degrees after two years of successful full-time study. But because many of their students work full time and go to school part time, progress can be slow and many students drop out of classes during the term. Yet many students thrive in these schools and go on to graduate school.

While not for everyone, higher education will not only expand your earning power by developing your skills and intellect, but also open the doors and windows to the pleasures of reading and the joy of learning.


Author of sixteen books, including In Defense of Reading:Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century and numerous articles on higher education as well as the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, recently released in a new paperback edition). Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at and followed on twitter and facebook.