Episode 167: Why the College’s History and Mission Matter

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Today we are going to talk about the Step 4 of your kid’s summer homework. Regular listeners know that this summer homework is based on our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. It’s not too late to get one from Amazon for your son or daughter.

In the last two episodes, you and your kid have been getting ready to start the real work. You have hopefully completed Step 1 by creating the all-important Long List of College Options (or LLCO, as we like to call it). And you have hopefully completed Step 2 by reviewing our College Profile Worksheet and Step 3 by browsing both a variety of college websites and College Navigator, the excellent online tool provided by the National Center for Education Statistics. So, here we go with Step 4: Research the College’s History and Mission.

From now on, your son or daughter (and/or you) will need to answer every one of our questions about every college on the LLCO. So, get a copy of the College Profile Worksheet out of the workbook, or make your own. Just remember there are 52 questions in all! Yes, we know that sounds like a lot of questions. But is that too much to know about a place where your kid will be spending four years?

1. College History

This is what we wrote to high school students about our very first category of questions about a college’s history and mission: 

We believe that lots of students are proud of the beginnings and traditions of the college they choose to attend. In fact, some students choose a college because of its history and its traditions. By the way, don’t forget that the reasons why a college is public or private are part of a college’s history and mission. This category might mean more to you than you expect.

As you complete Step 4 by researching each college on your LLCO on its website, you will see that some colleges started out as private colleges and became public for lots of interesting reasons. Some colleges started out as single-sex colleges, serving only men or only women, and became coeducational colleges for lots of interesting reasons. Some colleges started out as faith-based colleges and became less so for lots of interesting reasons. And some colleges just have truly remarkable stories–including, for example, the many HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) that have taken a longtime stand on behalf of the rights of African-American students to a college education.   There is lots for you to learn in this category.

Our loyal listeners all know that college histories are one of my favorite topics. I find them fascinating. When we were writing the workbook, Marie kept making me cut down the number of histories I wanted to present as examples of how rich and varied college histories are. I was allowed to include only 9. I could have written 99. At this moment, I would like to read you all 9, but I know Marie will think that is excessive. So I am settling for reading you just 4 (please, go read the others):

  • When the University of Iowa started holding classes in 1855, 41 of its 124 students were women?one-third of the student body. UI was the first public university to award a law degree to an African American (in 1870) and to a woman (in 1873). And it was the first public university to allow an African-American athlete to play on a varsity team (in 1895). UI was also the first university to create a department of education, which became the birthplace of a number of famous standardized tests, including the ACT.

  • The public University of Delaware was founded in 1743 (in Pennsylvania!) as a private academy to educate ministers and was moved to Delaware in 1765. Its first class boasted three students who went on to sign the Declaration of Independence, one of whom also signed the U.S. Constitution. UD’s colors of blue and gold were taken from the Delaware State flag, which got them from the colors of George Washington’s uniform. They also represent the colors of the flag of Delaware’s first Swedish colonists.

  • In 1749, Benjamin Franklin formed the Academy and Charitable School that became the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin served as its president and then as a trustee until 1790. His goal, considered radical for the times, was to offer something like a modern liberal arts curriculum to train students for business, government, and public service rather than for the ministry. The first medical school in the colonies was established at Penn in 1765.

  • The now-renowned Jubilee Singers of Fisk University left their almost-bankrupt campus in 1871 to try to raise enough money to keep their HBCU open by embarking on a tour that introduced the world to traditional spirituals. They succeeded. Decades later, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, became a professor at Fisk and later its first African-American president in 1946. He eventually brought to Fisk a number of Harlem Renaissance stars, like Aaron Douglas, James Weldon Johnson, and Arna Bontemps.

I know that one reason I chose the college I did for my undergraduate studies was because of its history as the only Ivy League school that was coeducational from its founding. That was important to me and to my father, who had graduated from an Ivy School that did not have a similar history. Sometimes history–even if it happened a couple of hundred years ago–can make a difference. Will it make a difference to your kid? Question 1 on the College Profile Worksheet asks your kid to jot down a brief history of the college, as told on the college’s website.

2. Claims About the College

And here’s what Question 2 is about, as we wrote to high school students in the workbook:

You might have noticed some “firsts” in the website’s explanation of the college’s history (e.g., the first public university in the South, the first college to award a bachelor’s degree to a woman, etc.), but there might be another section of the website devoted to “firsts” and to other claims about how great the college is. It is always useful to read these and to consider how persuaded you are that these claims make a college great. Personally, we are swept away sometimes by how impressive a college is, and sometimes we are not very impressed at all. It is worthwhile, though, to see how good a story a college can tell about itself when it tries really hard to do so.

One feature of many of these brag lists is how highly ranked, nationally and even internationally, various academic departments are (e.g., the ninth-best electrical engineering department in the U.S., in the top 20 departments of political science nationwide, etc.). You might not find these claims too interesting–unless you want to major in a department that is highly ranked. . . .

And what about the rankings of colleges that are done by various well-known organizations and popular publications? If a college gets a high ranking on one list or another, it will usually publicize that ranking on its website. When looking at such rankings, remember that different ranking systems base their rankings on different factors–some of which might be of no interest at all to you. So look at rankings if you wish (because it is actually rather hard to ignore them), but keep in mind that college rankings won’t tell you how you will fit into that campus?academically or socially. And it’s that “fit” that will determine just how happy you will be.

Will any of these claims make a difference to your kid? Or to you? Question 2 on the College Profile Worksheet asks your kid to jot down any “firsts,” any top-ranked departments, etc., as publicized on the college’s website.

3. Type of College

For many parents, the type of college–that is, public, private nonprofit, a public/private mix in a large university, or private for-profit–will make all the difference. (Often, that is because of the perceived difference in the price tag of a degree from a public and a private college.) The workbook fully explains these different types of colleges in case your kid does not know the difference–as, we find, is often the case for many high schoolers. One of the most important types of colleges for kids to understand is the public flagship university (a subset of public colleges) and one of the most interesting is the public/private mix. Here is what we wrote about those two types:

Public colleges are paid for, in part, by state and local governments?that means, by taxes. For this reason, they are understandably operated primarily for the benefit of their own residents. As a result, public colleges have reasonably low tuition for state and local residents, but nonresidents have to pay more. . . .

Each state has a public flagship university. . . . Public flagship universities are not equally good or equally respected; some are much more attractive than others–both to students in their own states and to out-of-state students. Just to make it more complicated, the public flagship university in some states is actually a university “system,” with a main campus (referred to as the flagship campus) plus regional campuses throughout the state. . . . In those cases, the flagship campus is typically the most prestigious.

Some states have more than one public system. . . .When a state has more than one public system, make sure you understand which public system the college on your LLCO is part of. Pay attention to how selective and how widely respected that particular system is.

Public-private partnerships are rare, but here is a great example. On its Ithaca campus in upstate New York, Cornell University offers a variety of schools/colleges to choose from at the undergraduate level–some private, some public. The private ones are the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; the College of Arts and Sciences; the College of Engineering; and the School of Hotel Administration (which is now part of a newly formed College of Business). The public ones were established by an Act of the New York State Legislature and are funded, in part, by State money: the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology, and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. A New York State resident attending any of the public ones would get an Ivy League education at a far more reasonable public price.

Is one or another type of college “best” for your kid–in his or her eyes or in yours? By the way, don’t forget something we find we have to remind people a lot: The fact is that some private colleges are indeed better than some public colleges; but, another fact is that some public colleges are indeed better than many private colleges. Question 3 on the College Profile Worksheet asks your kid to check off the type of college for each option on the LLCO–in case that is going to make a difference to either one of you.

4. Special Mission of College

By the time your son or daughter has finished reading and jotting down the history of each college on the LLCO, you all will know whether each college was founded with any special mission and whether that mission continues today. In the workbook, we discussed four missions that have been and still are relatively common among U.S. colleges (feel free to read more about all of them in the workbook):

  • Faith-based colleges and universities, including Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions, with varying degrees of emphasis on religious life and study

  • HBCUs, originally established with the mission of educating African-American students, but today serving many more students in just over 100 institutions–public and private, large and small, faith-based and not, two-year and four-year and graduate

  • HSIs–that is, over 250 Hispanic-Serving Institutions–which have been designated as such in just the past 50 years as a result of having a student enrollment that is at least 25 percent Hispanic

  • Single-sex colleges and universities, which are private institutions enrolling only women or only men (now, just over 40 women’s colleges in the U.S., but only a handful of men’s colleges)–including Marie’s alma mater, Barnard College, of course

There are lots of great colleges with special missions, as your kid will learn when answering Question 4 on the College Profile Worksheet.

Well, these were just the first four questions–the first four things you and your kid should know about a college before deciding whether to apply. There are 48 more things! So, get your son or daughter How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students or make sure you don’t miss any episodes over the next two months.

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