College Selection: How to Pick the Best School For You

“You check,” she said, scribbling out her email password. “I can’t do it.”

Ten seconds later, the composed, 17-year old in front of me cried the happiest tears I’ve seen outside of a romantic comedy. She got in. A full ride to Wesleyan University. The first in her family to go to college. But Natalia hadn’t won the Golden Ticket; she’d earned it (aided by the unwavering support of her family and teachers).

Seven years prior, I’d been in her shoes, screaming in an empty house after reading an email that not only granted me full financial aid to undergrad, but also access to a world of academic opportunity and a chance at social mobility. It had been a surreal moment that made me feel like maybe life on this big blue marble isn’t so bad after all.

Any educator will tell you that these are the moments they dream of – the brief moments in which they can forget about the political infighting, the budget cuts, the standardized testing, and, in many states, their measly paychecks (which are still not okay, by the way). But unfortunately, choosing a college (and getting in, period) requires a lot more than opening a digital envelope. There are serious considerations to be made, and here are three major ones.

1.The Fluffy Stuff

This is the pros/cons list best left in your head, lest anyone gives you a McJudgey side eye. But, look. We all have needs, some of them more frivolous than others. Maybe you want your cafeteria to serve locally grown, non-GMO foodstuffs that make you feel quietly righteous (and effortlessly “good”).

Maybe you’re freaked out by the thought of single-sex dorms (because it’s not 1693) or, alternatively, the idea of strolling down a co-ed hallway in a towel at midnight. Maybe you can only envision yourself in the city/suburbs/prairie or a place where your fingers won’t freeze to your keys. Or perhaps, like me, you want to retreat from the cultural confines of your (lovably?) Podunk town and find the MOST LIBERAL COLLEGE IN AMERICA AND GO THERE RIGHT NOW.

2. The Academic Stuff (because ultimately it’s a school, bro)

These are the variables you consider out loud … preferably in front of your parents/guardians: school rankings (meh), faculty, class size, job placement of alumni.

Do you care if your professor never learns your name? Would you rather have an instructor who wrote the textbook or an instructor who is a genuinely good teacher (unfortunately, it’s often either/or)? Are your academic interests a good fit for the school? (Do you really want to study Comp. Lit. at MIT? Or Spanish at RISD? PROBABLY NOT.)

3. The Deep Stuff

Unfortunately, college is not Animal House for many of us. The president has said that “higher education is not a luxury, it’s an economic imperative.” Still, the economic/psychological/cultural obstacles facing many college-bound youth are decidedly real.  Let’s look at some stats:

As of 2006, 3.8 million 18-24 year-olds were neither in school nor in the workforce, and only 32% of all high school seniors were deemed “college ready.” What’s more, upper class high school graduates are still 3.5 times as likely to attend college as their equally-prepared working-class peers, and the least wealthy quartile of America owes 58% of the nation’s student loan debt. Interest rates on unsubsidized loans to undergrads doubled in 2012 to 6.8%, and 89% of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree (more than a quarter after just one year).

Now, I’m not one of those people who thinks a four-year liberal arts degree is a panacea for social inequality in America. (In fact, many of my friends who pursued two-year degrees are making two to three times what I ever have.)

However, I will go to the mattresses to defend the idea that every student, regardless of race, creed, or socioeconomic status, should have the opportunity to choose their academic destiny (not to be confused with the “school choice” movement that allows the corporate tentacles of The Walton Foundation, etc. to dictate the country’s education policies).

Unfortunately, not all high school graduates in America have that luxury, namely our first generation immigrant population. Disqualified from all federal aid (and many private loans), undocumented students encounter tremendous academic roadblocks after high school – roadblocks that can effectively inhibit them from becoming full participants in our great “democracy.” Without a significant change in federal policy (oh, hey DREAM Act!), these individuals will continue to be economically imprisoned by their immigration status.              

A closing note on fancy schmancy colleges: Yes, top-tier private schools can (and generally do) provide a great education and loads of interesting opportunities to throngs of eager bookies. However (!), the vast majority of state schools do, too.  

The name of your college does not (and should not) define you. Some of the smartest people I know went to Harvard … and some of them went to South Dakota State University. As my dad used to say, “There are good people wherever you go.” Think about where you’ll feel truly comfortable. Don’t sell your soul to pay tuition. Work hard. Take advantage of the resources that are available to you. Do well, and do good.