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Factors in College Choice
By Donald Asher
[Author of Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed,Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different and special guest speaker at numerous home school conferences.]

Everything important in my family's life took place at the kitchen table. This table was the focal point of my intellectual and social life at the time. It never occurred to me that this was an odd family trait; I assumed everyone lived like us.

When I was in high school, everyone in my family was in school. My mother and stepfather were in college, and my brothers and I were all in high school. It was an exciting home. Every day we would all come home from class and tell what we had learned or, more accurately, argue about what we had learned. These arguments took place around that kitchen table.

No aspect of politics, philosophy, geography, economics, religion or history was off limits, and these arguments often led to looking things up in dictionaries, textbooks or encyclopedias. One of the big events in my family was the purchase of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which came in condensed form and could be read only with a magnifying glass. The dictionary's boxed set came with just such a glass.

One day, a high school friend and I had been out collecting fossils from a road bank and came back with a box of rocks. My mother was absolutely delighted and wanted to know all about where we had collected them, how we had known they were there, and what flora and fauna were represented. She then poured the box of rocks over into the middle of our kitchen table and asked me to get the magnifying glass that came with the OED.

Mother and I were looking at the fossils with the glass and oohing and ahhing, when suddenly both of us realized my friend was staring at us in shock. He had a look of absolute horror on his face. "Do you know what would happen to me if I came home and poured a box of rocks onto my mother's dining room table?" he asked. "After she got done killing me, I'd still have to clean it up."

That's when I realized that we were not like other people. That was, in fact, the first time I realized how special and rare a thing we had at home.

When I began to look for a college, I knew what I wanted: a replacement for that kitchen table -- where all topics could be discussed, where curiosity was the norm, and where knowledge was exciting and participatory. It took me years to find it, but find it I did.

When your family begins the process of college choice, it is useful to know what you are seeking. For me, I knew. I could compare my options with a real, self-articulated goal. You have to know what you're after to know if you're getting closer, or farther, from that ideal. From working with families embroiled in college choice, I can tell you a few principles to advance the process:

Start with the student.

Find out what she or he wants or expects to get out of college. Does he want a good all-around education, or preparation for a particular career? Or does he simply want to leave home schooling behind him and have "a normal college experience" to prepare him for "the real world"? Does she want to play sports or watch them? Does he want to work really hard at academics, or find a place where he can do well without giving up any weekends? What kind of people would she most like as classmates? Republicans? Vegetarians? Really smart kids? People already fluent in French? Artists? Others who can afford to fly to Vail for a weekend of skiing? What would be a great evening at college, in his opinion? The perfect college weekend? What does she plan to wear to class? These, and hundreds of questions like them, can draw out your young person's idea of college.

If you don't start with your young student's ideas, you will default to your own. In other words, you will choose a great college for you, not your son or daughter. One of my friends has been building a list of colleges for years for his daughter. He can tell you why each school is on his list, what its strengths and weaknesses are, how far from home is acceptable and how far is too far, and so on. He talks about this list right in front of his daughter, and, so far as I can tell, he's never really asked her opinion about any of it. She is thirteen. I predict that, by the time he gets around to talking to her about it, she's going to want to go to school in Australia or Africa.

Give up on the four-hour-drive rule.

Many families try to impose a four-hour-drive rule on their students. You may be guilty of this yourself, saying, "You can go to any school you want, as long as it's no more than a four-hour drive away from this spot."

This is misguided and, in a sense, antiquated. Of course, it is normal to want to keep up with your young person. You can't imagine this waif of a child, who cannot today manage a sock drawer, being away at school without you. But with today's dirt-cheap long distance, cell phones, 24/7 email, and relatively cheap airfares, you can keep up with your child wherever he or she decides to go to college. In fact, today's college students may be too available to their families, and vice versa.

Let's do a little analysis of this anyway. First, you need to know two facts: students without cars have higher grades than students with cars, and students who live on campus have higher grades than students who live off campus. So, by getting rid of the car, you're saving two types of car expense: insurance for someone under twenty-one, and either expensive repairs on your family's old beater or expensive car payments on a more reliable, newer car. That's several hundred dollars per month you're saving. You can buy a lot of airline tickets with several hundred dollars per month. So, your young person is better off without a car, and better off living on campus than living down the hall. Add that to the fact that it is much safer to fly long distances than to drive even short ones, and the decision should be clear: Give up on the four-hour-drive rule, and look nationally for the right school. If it happens to be in your own back yard, fine, but don't set that down as a requirement in advance.

Address the large vs. small decision.

The first thing most families do is make a list of schools they already know about. That's okay, but it tends to create a list biased in favor of large schools. There are 50,000 undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin. Can you imagine being 17 or 18 years old, arriving at UT, and standing in the heat and sun of a Texas summer's day staring up at your high-rise dorm? Welcome to Alienation 101. I may as well tell you that I have a bias against really large universities, for all undergraduates but especially for home-schooled students.

At large universities, students will be taught by graduate assistants, not professors, in large classes. How large? Some popular majors may have hundreds of students in every single lower-division class. In fact, large universities are not designed for undergraduates at all; they are designed to serve the needs of two entirely different constituencies: graduate students and research faculty. Research faculty may never teach classes at all, much less to undergraduates.

Students imagine that at large institutions they will have a lot of choice and a plethora of activities from which to choose. This is a false promise, however. Yes, there are lots of activities, but undergraduates at large universities report having fewer friends and going to fewer social events than students at smaller universities and colleges. They also are more likely to drop out, take more than four years to complete their studies, be excluded from popular classes, work more than ten hours a week, and graduate with higher levels of debt. Finally, they are statistically less likely to get into graduate school. Just as a trivia item, the largest per capita producers of Ph.D.s in this country are: Caltech, Reed College, and Harvey Mudd College, all three combined having fewer undergraduates than even a small university.

So, in building a list, any family needs to work harder to discover smaller universities and colleges, many of which may not be known to them and may not show up on the initial list.

Consider, but don't overweigh, the student's planned major. When a student is mildly interested in a major, selecting a school based on that mild interest would not be prudent. The data reflect that the majority of undergraduates will change their major at least once, anyway. When a student has a strong and focused academic interest that he or she is eager to pursue in college, then, of course, it makes sense to choose schools that are strong in that area. However, be somewhat careful in choosing a college based on the strength of a single department. Anthropology has a way of becoming Archeology, and Geology has a way of becoming Physical Geography or even Cultural Geography. So look for schools that are strong in the entire area of interest.

There are some exceptions to this, however, and they are engineering, architecture, performance music, and studio art. A young person cannot graduate on time in engineering without coming in the door a declared major, and without sticking to the planned curriculum. The same is usually true about architecture. As to music and art, a student with a strong interest in these areas is not well-served in institutions where these interests are just a sideline.

For most students, however, discussions of a predicted major should be kept generalized and should guide choice to certain types of institutions, but not necessarily because of the relative strengths of specific departments.

Think twice before seeking only "brand-name" schools.

Increasingly in our winner-take-all society, parents and students believe that success will come only from a handful of brand-name schools. This is absolutely false and causes families much undue stress. When a student has a good alignment between her or his interests and the college or university of choice, that student will be encouraged, professors will notice outstanding work, academic advising will be personalized, work and internship opportunities will be appropriately customized, the student will gain confidence, and so on. When a student gets into an academic environment where all the others students are better prepared than he or she is, the exact opposite will occur at every turn. I have data that show a student is actually harmed by gaining admission to schools where his or her SAT score is significantly below the median.

Besides, these schools can be extraordinarily difficult to get into. Every year, Harvard rejects about 90 percent of all applicants, including the majority of applicants with perfect SAT scores. There's nothing wrong with putting brand name schools on your list, but don't bank on them -- and don't be surprised if the best school for your scholar is not one.

For exactly the same line of reasoning, don't be fooled by national ranking systems that don't have anything to do with your young person's interests. (There are serious methodological weaknesses with these ranking systems, but that's an entire other article.) Seek to build your own list, and trust yourself.

Gossip at will, but be cautious about "The Visit."

The best way to learn more about an institution is to talk to alumni. After spending more then thirteen years investigating schools, I can tell you that they don't change much over time. So, the gossip and advice you get from an alumnus or alumna, even one that graduated twenty years ago, is among the best advice out there.

When visiting, try to visit when school is in session. Let your student do most of the talking, even if you have to bite your tongue. If you visit classes, be sure to visit several. You don't want to judge an entire school on a one-hour class; even great professors may have an off day. Also, be wary of over-interpreting the weather and the attractiveness of the tour guide. The weather will change, and that tour guide is a senior, and won't be back next year.

What about friends?

College choice is the second biggest financial decision your family will ever make, and, if you have more than one child, it is the biggest. Don't let your young person make this decision based upon the criteria of a neighbor's kid! Do you really think your neighbors went into this level of introspection and investigation to choose a college? And even if they did, does that necessarily apply to your scholar?

College is a great chance to meet new people and do new things. If you choose well, your young scholar will have great new friends, friends that can last a lifetime. Help your scholar pick a school that's a good match, and he or she can see old friends in the summer, if they're not busy on an internship in Australia or Africa. D.A.