How to Choose Colleges

While perhaps this is a little too late to be especially useful—since it’s now the end of September and students have not only selected their schools but actually started classes there—Lynn O’Shaughnessy over at U.S. News & World Report believes that a lot of Americans are choosing colleges for the wrong reasons. As she writes:

When I ask teenagers why they are enthusiastic about particular state schools, I often hear these sorts of responses:

It’s my mom or dad’s alma mater. I love its football or basketball team. My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there. It’s not far away.

To me, all these responses suggest that teenagers aren’t carefully researching the schools on their wish lists.

While, granted, “my boyfriend/girlfriend is going there” does sound a little irresponsible, what are the good ways to choose colleges—aside from how much they cost? Actually learning, of course, is pretty hard to figure out.

O’Shaughnessy’s got a few ideas, but they turn out to be pretty random. “Does the university offer a writing center” is apparently something to consider. (Actually virtually all colleges offer writing centers of some sort, though quality is pretty hard to determine.) There’s average class size, not just the published one, but the actual average size of introductory classes. Good to know, I guess, but the ideal size remains a mystery.

One of the most puzzling suggestions is O’Shaughnessy’s first: “Is there a learning community at the university?” While I always thought that “learning community” was the definition of a university, apparently O’Shaughnessy means freshmen learning communities, which are programs at certain colleges where small groups of students and faculty who meet to explore to explore certain academic topics.

The best factor to consider was probably the college’s graduation rate though, again, it’s a little unclear what the ideal graduation rate should be. While certain graduation rates are obviously good and others are awful, what the acceptable rate? How do potential applicants know a college is effective?

With such ambiguity, “It’s my dad’s alma mater” doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer