It’s refreshing to meet with a student that has chosen to apply to a list of colleges that he or she believes represent the perfect fit. This list is not simply a list of the most selective schools the student believes they can get in to, nor is it a list of those colleges that their parents feel will impress their friends and colleagues the most. It is a list of colleges that can meet this particular student's wants and needs. There is no one college that is right for everyone. We all learn differently. We have different values, interests, skills, and personalities. The same is true for the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. ; they will vary tremendously in how they deliver their education, what kinds of students they enroll, and the kinds of experiences they can offer their students.
Many students in this country suffer from an obsession with "brand names"; prestige is the driving force behind their decision making process. When I am asked "Is _________ University a good college?", what the student is really asking me is if the school is popular or hard to get in. There is a problem with this approach.
To start with, what makes a brand name college, anyway? It may that the football or basketball team plays on ESPN. It may be that the institution is very old and almost impossible to get admitted to. Perhaps a student has a friend or relative that attended a certain school. Big schools are often well known simply because of their size. A college's geographic location, marketing budget, and rankings in questionable publications like US News and World Report also play a role in making one school popular and another a "no-name " college or university.
The problem with the prestige approach is that many of the factors that make a school "prestigious" may often have nothing to do with the quality of education the college will provide. If a university has a great football team, does that now mean it is the best place to study engineering? Does heavy advertising mean a college's teachers are more available to students or more qualified to teach their subject matter? These answers, as you may have guessed, are "no". Instead of looking at the football team, look at the graduation and retention rates....the class sizes...the support available to students...and a host of other factors that say much more about the kind of educational experience you will have at this particular institution. Many of the so-called no- name schools offer tremendous academic, financial, and interpersonal opportunities to those students bold and diligent enough to look beyond the marketing hype.
Even if a student has a good shot at getting into biggest name schools such as Harvard, Princeton, or Yale that does not mean they should automatically go to school there. Prestige doesn’t ensure a positive collegiate experience; a poor match can lead to some very difficult times. For example, if you are a student that learns best in small classes where the professor is readily available for questions, should you go to a university where your freshman science classes may have several hundred students? Consider also that most UAG students need considerable financial aid for college. While some of the big names schools can offer great financial aid, many can't. Should you go to a college that will cost you over $100k in student loans?
Take a step back for a minute...the college search process should be one of the most exciting times of a student’s life. This is a time for a young person to really get to know him or herself. What does he or she value? What does he or she enjoy doing? What kind of people does the student enjoy hanging out with? What does the student want to get out of college? What kind of person does the student want to become? The college search process is not solely based on finding a college; it’s based on the student doing some soul searching about who he or she really is. The idea is to match the student's learning style, personality, interests, and values with an institution that will be this individual student's best fit. Any college that does this for you affordably is a "good college"...even if their basketball team never makes the Final Four!
One of the ways students can begin to differentiate between schools is to visit local institutions – as many different schools as they can. Even though they may not want to attend each of those schools, it is important to think about what they liked and disliked about each of them. The more schools a student sees, the more their own preferences in an institution will become clear.
Working closely with Mr. Rigney throughout this process, attending college fairs, reading college guides and using the college & career websites available through Naviance, and meeting with the many college admissions officers that visit us each fall, will be a great help to students seeking to find that match. The truth is that while no one college will be perfect, each student will find many schools that are a great fit.