With "College Choice" season upon us, I'm often asked by prospective students what advice I might offer as they come to the end of their high school careers and weigh the important decision about where to continue their education. Parents are full of questions, too.
Believe me, I don't underestimate the gravity of this challenge in the least bit.
A college degree opens doors of opportunity and provides access to the American dream. The college experience is also a starting point in so many ways beyond simply laying the foundation for a fulfilling life of work. It should encourage lifelong learning, develop a sense of responsibility for one's community and mark the beginning of new and lasting friendships for decades to come.
So now that offers of admission have been extended to the hundreds of thousands of young men and women across the nation intent on earning a college degree, push has come to shove, and it's time to choose.
What should inform your decision?
Above all, do not consume the marketing materials uncritically. Consider one more set of campus visits to those schools on your short list as well. While there, ask colleges hard questions.
What you are trying to determine, after all, is the best "fit," which is vitally important.
The variety of options not only has to do with an institution's size and whether public or private but also with institutional mission. What does college x, y or z value? What distinguishes it from the competition?
At Centre, for instance, we guarantee a study abroad experience, an internship or research opportunity and graduation in four years. This so-called Centre Commitment says that learning does not just occur in the classroom, and the international component stresses our emphasis on developing citizen-leaders with a global outlook.
Make sure you're clear what those schools on your short list prioritize.
Related, I would encourage exploring what opportunities exist for what might be broadly labeled as "engagement," since the college experience should not be limited to just what occurs in the classroom.
Centre and similar colleges place a premium on providing what are called "high-impact practices." Study abroad, internships and undergraduate research all check these boxes, as do varsity and intramural athletics, involvement in student organizations, artistic experiences (as attendee or performer), community-based learning opportunities and volunteer service, to name a few.
In other words, look for opportunities to expand your comfort zone and to be challenged in your thinking and outlook. Take responsible risks. Push boundaries in ways that help you develop personally and professionally.
Don't look for the easy way. Being challenged is a critical component for future success, and I would also be sure to ask what priority is placed on academic effort and the level of expectation professors have of their students.
Is the faculty just there to teach, or do they interact with students in- and outside of the classroom? I believe strongly that college faculty should be mentors and role models, not just teachers.
Small class sizes at colleges like Centre provide for lots of personal interaction. We even have a budget set aside to support dinners at the homes of our professors, and generous grants from foundations like Brown and Mellon support summer student-faculty collaborative research.
Finally, ask about what kinds of support the college provides to assist your success. The two critical areas I would ask about involve counseling and career services.
College can be stressful and it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help if needed. The college experience should be holistic, focused on developing mind, body and spirit. What services exist to make this a reality?
And once the four years fly by, are you positioned for what's next?
I always encourage Centre students to get engaged with our Center for Career & Professional Development the first week they arrive on campus. While a final destination is likely unclear at the start, building a road map term by term and year by year makes charting the future that much easier.
Ask, too, about what has come to be known as "outcomes data." What percentage of students are employed or pursuing graduate or professional degrees after graduation? What is the graduation rate?
And on this point I end with one last bit of advice, mindful of John Dewey's comment that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."
In that spirit, remember that your investment in higher education should have a positive return, but that the most important value is not monetary alone.