How to Choose the Right College
by Adam Weinberg
April 11, 2017
students on campus

Today is April 3. Over the next month, there will be countless conversations between high school seniors and their parents about which college is the best choice for them. Here is some advice from a college president who also is the parent of two college-age children. 

Let me start with an observation. The college search process has changed a lot over the last decade, as the general economy has continued to shift. For many families, selecting a college is considered among the most important decisions they will make. Families are looking at a competitive job market and believe this decision will impact their child’s earning potential (and, hence, everything else) for the rest of their lives. They are searching for value.

My first piece of advice is this: value comes largely from fit. There are many good colleges in this country where you can get a great education, but if the fit is wrong, it is nearly impossible to get a great education – no matter how good the college is.

What does this mean? We don’t have to guess—we have lots of data on when and why college matters. Elsewhere, I have written about what we can learn from this growing body of data, and I highly recommend reading How College Works by Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs as well as The Gallup-Purdue Index.  In essence, students need to go to a college with these qualities:

  • Mentorship matters. It turns out that mentorship is one of the defining characteristics of a transformative college experience. In particular, faculty mentorship is crucial.
  • Students get involved. Students are more likely to succeed when they are able to participate in activities outside the classroom that supplement their learning (athletics, student organizations, the arts, etc.).
  • Lateral learning takes place. Students learn a lot from one another. They need to be at a college where they are surrounded by peers who are in college for the right reasons and are pushing and prodding each other in the right ways.

The question is: How do you find a college where your son or daughter is likely to become immersed quickly, develop a close mentoring relationship with a faculty member, and get involved in sustained co-curricular activities that allow them to find good friends and develop strong life skills? 

Have a conversation about fit. Now is the time to have a serious conversation with your son or daughter about where they are in their own personal development and what kind of college is going to be best for them. Are they more likely to thrive in a lecture hall or small classes? Will they be more comfortable in an urban or rural setting? What kinds of people do they tend to thrive around?

Make sure you understand the financial costs. The sticker price, meaning the listed tuition, is not altogether helpful. The financial aid letters you may have just received can be misleading. Make sure you understand: How many years does it take the average student to graduate? At Denison, like most private colleges, it is four years. At some public universities, it often takes five or even six years (therefore, an extra year or two of tuition). And will financial aid be in place for the entire time they are in college? 
One of the mistakes prospective families make is selecting a college because of very small differences in price. Fit is most important. 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, and families need to determine what that level is for them. 

Choose a college where your son or daughter can pursue their passions. If your son or daughter plays a sport or has a passion for an artistic endeavor, choose a college where they will be able to pursue that passion. This is really important—don’t choose a college where they only will be able to watch others perform. Choose a college where they will be likely to make the team, be cast in a play, join a music ensemble, and have a chance to pursue their passion.

This is also true for students who want to major in the sciences. So much of the value of undergraduate work in the sciences comes from hands-on research. Choose a college where undergraduates get to conduct their own research and where it is built into courses. Be wary of places where graduate students replace professors in classrooms and knock undergraduates out of the labs.

Pay attention to the first-year program. Transitioning into college can be hard. Select a college where a lot of attention is paid to how students transition into college and the support they receive if and when they stumble. Once students get connected to courses, faculty, friends and co-curricular activities, they will be fine.

Visit the colleges one more time. If you have narrowed it down to two or three colleges, go visit them one more time. Try to attend one of the April Visit Days that most colleges offer for admitted students. Let your son or daughter spend the night at their top two or three colleges, and tell them to go with their gut. Don’t be strident with your views. Ask your son or daughter questions, as opposed to offering observations. Where do they feel comfortable? Which one feels right? 

Here are some questions to ask during the April Visit Days that are important, but not often thought of: What is the size of the endowment per student? Endowment translates 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. 

And pay attention to location. You want to be on a campus that has a good vibe. I also think there is a huge 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 this is self-serving, given that Denison has one of the best locations of any liberal arts college in the nation. We have a beautiful campus in an idyllic village that is 25 minutes from Columbus, which has become a vibrant city filled with music, culture and global businesses.

Once you select a college, make sure the conversation continues. But try to dial down the stress. As I mentioned earlier, there are many colleges in this country where students can get a great education. Too often, the rankings lead readers to imagine that choosing the right college is all about where it sits on a list. Nothing could be further from the truth. Choosing the right college is far more personal than that. It’s about fit. And remember, we expend way too much energy worrying about getting in and selecting the right college, and not nearly enough focusing on how to transition into college and how to take full advantage of the college experience.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.