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Big-name schools aren't always best

Ivies and safeties. Reaches and matches. Triumphs and tears. As the mother of three teenagers, I hear plenty of "college quest" language from the driver's seat of my car.

Last year, I had a high school senior in the throes of a search. This year I get a respite while my junior and sophomore take in the restless talk of their senior friends, band mates, and teammates. 'Tis the season for college anxieties – and from my vantage point, as a college administrator and as a parent, it is clear that misinformation abounds.

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There is plenty of sound advice these days from high school guidance counselors and college admissions personnel who tell students to seek out schools that offer the "right fit" for them. But the myth of "the best" versus "the rest" in the pecking order of college prestige appears to be alive and well among students and parents. And this hierarchy, which drives many conversations, does little to help high school students discern what's really best for them in a college.

My oldest daughter, now happily immersed in her second semester at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, had her own taste of the name game last summer when she excitedly told New England friends where she'd decided to go. "Grinnell," she'd say. "Cornell? Wow, that's a great school," people would often reply. After the initial irritation, she just took to responding, with some amusement, "No, not Cornell – a different great school that you've just never heard of."

As a campus professional, I am aware of how important a good "fit" can be. I have seen firsthand how the highest-ranking student in a high school class will not necessarily thrive in a highly competitive environment. I have also witnessed how the student with a relatively undistinguished high school career may become an impact student at the right place.

The real question is not about how high one can climb in the rankings, but about where one can truly participate in a challenging and rewarding curriculum, as well as explore or sustain other areas of personal interest.

Before settling on Grinnell, my daughter completed her college visits convinced that she wanted to study both chemistry and music. The particular demands of these two fields helped her narrow her search to colleges with a very open curriculum: Any school with extensive "core" requirements or a music conservatory would have made her combination of disciplines impossible. Although she changed her focus to music and French before leaving for college, she still feels that the feature of an open curriculum is an enduring value for her.

Students at my own college tell similar stories about how they weighed their college options. I've met students who confidently chose Stonehill College over schools their parents or peers considered "better" because they could compete in varsity athletics here – or because they liked knowing that they would not have to compete to travel to Peru, Honduras, or New Orleans to perform community service in an alternative spring break program. If such opportunities matter, the student should be sure to choose a college where personal goals are attainable.

Students believe they should spend time in their college visits getting a feel for the campus environment – large or small, urban or rural. But in 22 years of working in higher education, I've learned that some rural schools have a vibrant campus life and some urban schools lack vitality, that some small schools are easy to get lost in and some large ones create true learning communities. Size and setting tell only part of the story.

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Ultimately, it is far more important to ask questions of everyone on campus about the degree to which students can take responsibility for their own learning and development, about the extent to which they are encouraged toward self-governance, and about just how available faculty and other adult mentors are to help guide them.

From where I sit, both as a parent and as an academic administrator, I say resist the reflex to overvalue the "reach" schools and consider instead the complete package of a college experience. Given the number of well-prepared PhDs in the market, many institutions have first-rate faculties who develop challenging curriculums in their fields. Look for excellent academic programs, but also for undergraduate research, student leadership development, wide-ranging international programs, and opportunities for service. And weigh not only the existence of these programs but also the participation rates of students.

The thrill of impressing people with a brand-name college is rather short-lived. Going to college shouldn't be about reaching a goal framed by others, but about finding a place that can stretch you in new ways – and there's probably more than one perfect place.

As I glance in the rearview mirror and tune in to the edgy banter of this year's applicants, I remember what it took for my oldest daughter to tune out some of the chatter in order to focus on her choice – and to put herself in the driver's seat where selecting a college was concerned.

Katie Conboy is vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.


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