03/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Truth About School Reputation: Knowing What You're Getting Yourself Into

While most of New York University was left untouched during a recent student protest, the Kimmel Center, the heart of the university's student life, has only recently become accessible once again to all NYU students. Well, not all exactly. Of the 20,604 students enrolled at NYU, there remain 18 that are forbidden entrance. These 18 students are members of the group called Take Back NYU that, fittingly, just took over the Kimmel Center and are now facing possible expulsion.

These profoundly dissatisfied students refused to leave the building until their specific requests were met (which they never were) and their dissatisfaction allayed (which, as you can imagine, never was). Their demands were varied. While a couple of the group's thirteen requests were undeniably related -- the public release of NYU's annual budget and endowment, tuition stabilization for all students, and the general plea to make NYU affordable for all -- others, like making their 12-story library public, came out of left field. And one was just downright uninformed: the request for tuition stabilization. Take Back NYU demanded NYU offer an opportunity that it does, in fact, already offer. Sure, it's not shouted from the rooftops, but that doesn't change the fact that incoming freshman may still participate in tuition stabilization at NYU for a small fee (in comparison to escalating college costs).

Still, I'm not interested in criticizing or praising this particular student protest or their demands. I relate the above only to illustrate the great importance of being intimately acquainted with a school prior to and during attendance. Students must thoroughly research a school and go in with their eyes wide-open. Yes, current students can implement change -- or try to-- but it's important to have realistic expectations. I cannot imagine that these Take Back NYU student protesters did and fear that those in charge of the takeover may have signed up for a school they knew sad little about.

This is a school that is notorious for its high tuition and lackluster student funding. Although I just recently expressed my ambivalence toward college rankings, I must admit that any school whose student feedback has ranked it 1st in "Students dissatisfied with financial aid" on Princeton Review's 2008 college survey might find completely denying this reputation a bit tricky. (And any cursory glance at the school's $50,182 price tag, which includes room and board but omits necessary materials like books, would confirm its costliness.) The point, though, is not that NYU is a better or worse school because of the aforementioned; it's simply that the aforementioned is an undeniable part of attending this university. This school, while great academically and strong in a number of other positive respects, is expensive. When students enroll at NYU, they should expect to have to create a reasonable plan for success, both financially and academically. Of course, I'm not saying that students should just take their concerns sitting down. They have a responsibility to the school they love to act thoughtfully and constructively, pushing to make improvements that will, in the end, result in a better academic environment. If a university cares about its students (and itself), then meaningful criticism will be welcomed and valued. Still, while students may (and should) work against unfavorable school policies and habits, it's important to recognize that such issues are not solved overnight (or, in Take Back NYU's case, 40 hours). With that in mind, any student whose top priority is financial aid should probably not attend a university notorious for disappointing its students in that respect. They're bound to be unhappy there.

On the other hand, any NYUer who was surprised by this demonstration also did not do his or her homework. Yes, Take Back NYU inconvenienced many students in one way or another; still, these protesters are merely participating in a time honored NYU pastime -- stirring up Washington Square and making news. This school is simply not for the faint (or dispassionate) of heart. And it's not alone! Universities usually have specific reputations for a reason and these reputations must be taken into account during the college application process. NYU is known for being a school that attracts active and experimental students -- that's part of the school's appeal. And even if not all NYUers are drawn to this particular part of the school's personality, it remains an indisputable part nonetheless. Any student who's done a bit of research on the school would know this. That doesn't make this particular feature any more or less attractive; it just makes it a part of matriculating there.

Not everyone gets along. That's normal. But there's really no need for students to attend a university whose personality is so ill-suited to their own. The only way to prevent a bad match is with thoughtful student research; it's one of the most important parts of the college application process and the only way to ensure that students know exactly what they're getting into. And at the very least, if a student refuses to research or accept a school's personality before attending, may I beseech him or her to, prior to participating in a protest, research the school's policy on housing, tuition refunds, and terms for expulsion.