Bennett: Who Should You Be in College?

Where should you go to college? you have nearly 1,500 colleges and universities to choose among—and that counts just the accredited four-year institutions. The list gets longer still (much longer) if you include community colleges and other accredited institutions that offer two-year associate's degrees. How do you choose when the choice seems to matter so much?

"Is it really my choice?" you may ask yourself. "Don't I have to get in first? And isn't it hard to get into the best colleges?" True, of the 1,500 there are 100 or so that are highly selective—that have so many applicants clamoring to get in, only a lucky minority gain admission. But is one of these the best college for you just because many, many others want to go there, too? There is very little evidence that these highly selective colleges provide a more effective education to the students who do gain admission than these same students would have received elsewhere. You need to make a right choice for you, not a choice that simply follows the desires of others. And the vast majority of colleges and universities accept a high percentage of those who apply. So the choice truly is yours. Now, how do you make it?

First, look in the mirror. Who do you want to be in college? Simply put, you are the one who is going to educate yourself. You are the one who is going to have to do the reading, complete the labs, write the papers, and take the tests. A college won't and can't educate you. It can only provide a setting for you to educate yourself. Will you choose to work hard? Will you choose to take initiative? Will you choose to be responsible? Will you choose to act with integrity? Will you choose to feel affirmed by your successes and to learn from your failures? If you can say yes to all of these, then choosing where to go to college becomes much easier. Why? Because you can educate yourself well at hundreds and hundreds of different colleges.

Second, focus on "being at home" and "being stretched." You want to find a college that will allow you to do both of these. It's tempting to think of a college education as a matter of filling yourself up with knowledge as if you were an empty glass and the college were a pitcher. But really, a college education is much more a matter of drawing capabilities out of yourself. In looking for a college, you are looking for a place that allows you to feel comfortable and, at the same time, challenges you to try new things, to push yourself, to go where you have never gone before. Sure, there is tension between these two. You are looking to find a balance. As you visit colleges (and I strongly urge you to visit anywhere you are considering applying), ask students already enrolled: "What makes you feel most at home here, and what doesn't?" Also ask students: "What have you experienced or accomplished that's most surprised you?" Do those sound like challenges that will draw the best out of you?

Third, focus on engagement. All of us learn by being engaged, by being actively involved. So as you are sorting through possible colleges for you, try to see how and where students are engaged in their own learning. Visit classes in subjects that interest you. Do students look connected to what's going on? Ask them what they did to get ready for this class, what they read, or what assignments they prepared. Do they look happy to be there? When they leave class, are they still talking about what happened, or have they already tuned it out? Outside of classes, look at bulletin boards to see what's going on at this campus.

Fourth, focus on relationships. Most of us learn and grow not by ourselves but in relationship with others. As you visit, ask students how well they know their professors and whether their professors know them. Are there real relationships being formed? Ask students about their friends: do they share identical backgrounds and interests, or are they forming friendships with those with different perspectives? And ask about other significant relationships: with advisers, counselors, coaches, and mentors.

And fifth, don't be shy about costs. A college education is an investment in the rest of your life, and it can be expensive. Some colleges have lower published (or "sticker") prices but, once you enroll there, turn out to have additional fees and costs. And there may not be much financial aid available. Other colleges have very high, even scary, sticker prices, but also provide a great deal of financial aid so that the actual cost of attendance is much lower. Moreover, colleges are quite different in how they award financial aid. The point is this: you won't know what it will cost you to attend any particular college unless you ask. The current dark financial climate makes asking all the more urgent. While the answers about college costs may have changed over the past year or two, going to college hasn't become less important. On the contrary, it has become even more essential.

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