President's Speeches & Writings

What really matters when choosing a college

by

Adam S. Weinberg

March 29, 2019
Professor and student

It’s spring, which means that lots of high school seniors and families are making their final college decisions. The college admission process can be daunting. Each year, as a college president (and a parent who has been through it twice), I share some ideas about how parents and families can help with the final college selection.

Here is the good news. Your student can get a great education at a wide range of colleges.

What matters most is the fit. It’s hard to get a great education if the fit is not right, and figuring out the fit can be confusing. But I also think it can be remarkably easy, if you ask the right questions.

Elsewhere, I have written on what we know about what defines a great college experience. I continue to recommend reading How College Works by Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, about what they learned in 10 years following 100 students through a liberal arts college.

The longer that I am a college president, the more I am convinced that three things need to happen for college to have a lasting, positive impact on students’ lives.

  • Mentorship is one of the defining characteristics of a transformative college experience. Students need to seek out and find mentors, and they need to be at a college where mentorship is likely to happen. It’s worth reading the recent Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, which asked more than 500,000 Americans to share their education experiences.
  • Engagement matters. College is not a passive process. Students need to be academically engaged, and they also need to be active in a few activities outside the classroom where they will learn good leadership and management skills.
  • Lateral learning is the other crucial factor. Students learn a lot from each other. They need to be at a college where they will be surrounded by peers from whom they will learn and peers who will bring out the best in them.

My advice to parents is to help your child find a college where they are likely to quickly “feel at home,” become academically engaged, develop a close mentoring relationship with faculty and other staff, and get involved in co-curricular activities where they will find good friends and develop strong life skills.

Over the next few weeks, I would encourage you to do the following:

First, narrow down the final list to two to four colleges. This requires having an open and honest conversation with your student about what college means for them. What do they want to study? What size feels right?

As you have this conversation, make sure you select colleges where they can pursue their interests. If your student plays a sport or has a passion for an artistic endeavor, choose a college where they will make the team, be cast in a play, join a music ensemble. They should have a broad range of opportunities to pursue their interests.

This also is true for students who want to major in the sciences. Select a college where you can get into labs early and often, and ask about opportunities for undergraduates to do research with faculty.

And fit also requires being honest with what is affordable. One of the mistakes families make is selecting a college because of very small differences in price. It does not make sense to go to a college that is slightly less expensive if the fit is not right. At the same time, debt does matter. My own view is that a manageable level of debt is worth it to get an education that is the right fit for the student. Families need to determine what that level is for them.

Second, take advantage of April Visit Days. Attend one of the April Visit Days that colleges offer for admitted students. Encourage your student to spend the night. When you leave the campus, ask them questions, as opposed to offering your observations. I am convinced that these opportunities to make a gut check often lead students to make the right decision.

Third, ask questions. Here are some questions to ask during April Visit Days that are important, but not often thought of: What is the size of the endowment per student (which can translate into the financial resources a college can spend on providing student experiences)? What is the mood on campus? You want to be someplace where faculty, staff and students are proud of the college. Ask about the first-year program and how it helps students transition into college.

Fourth, pay attention to the location. I believe there is an advantage to being in a location that has a healthy community surrounding the college and easy access to an airport and city. And I will admit that my opinion is biased, given that Denison has a great location. We have a beautiful campus in an idyllic village that is part of the Columbus metropolitan region, a vibrant city filled with music, culture and global businesses.

Last, enjoy the process. Traveling with your student to make those final college visits can be stressful or fun. Choose to make it fun. Encourage them to take a moment on each campus to stop, take in the campus environment, and to feel proud of themselves. They have worked hard to get accepted to some great colleges. Now the colleges are recruiting them. They deserve a moment to savor the experience, and to be excited about the future. Appreciate the opportunity to talk to them about what they want in and from a college. Choosing the right college is a chance to have some quality time and conversations with your student.

Once you select a college, make sure the conversation continues. We expend way too much energy worrying about getting in and selecting the right college, and not nearly enough energy focusing on how to transition into college and how to take full advantage of the college experience.

College will push your student and challenge them in all sorts of ways. It is a time that can and should be rich with joy and discovery. Talking to your student as their college career unfolds can help them understand what they are learning and how it fits together. Have those conversations to help them explore the value of their experience.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.