Episode 172: Why the College’s Schedule Matters

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Today’s episode is about Step 9 of your kid’s summer homework. All 14 steps are being explained in our series of episodes this summer and have been explained, with more examples and details, in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Workbooks are still available from Amazon if you want one for your son or daughter.

Step 9 looks at the components that make up the college schedule. For many colleges, these questions will produce a rather traditional response, something like this: a fall semester and a spring semester, each running about 15 weeks. There will also be a summer term or two, and there might even be a super-short winter term between the regular terms. But there are also innovative scheduling options that your son or daughter has probably never heard of and might find attractive. Tell your kid to go to each college’s website to answer the three questions on this topic.

1. Term Length and Course Length

First, let’s talk about the length of academic terms and, therefore, of college courses. They might be more varied than you think. This is what we wrote, in part, to students in the workbook:

Some students like to study something over many weeks because that allows them time for calm reflection and for breaks every once in a while. Other students like to study something over a shorter time period because that keeps them better engaged and focused and allows less time for forgetting. Some students can do very well when asked to concentrate on subjects or projects intensively in short bursts, but have trouble sustaining interest and attention over longer time frames. Other students are just the opposite.

Whatever your preference is, there is a college for you. You might not want to make college schedule the main reason for choosing a college, but you might find that it contributes to your thinking about how successful and comfortable you might be at a particular college. On the other hand, you might find a college schedule so intriguing that the schedule alone could push a college to the top of your list of options.

Many colleges operate on a traditional fall and spring semester system, with each semester’s lasting from 15 to 18 weeks, depending how you count exam and holiday weeks. There are two semesters each year, and you attend both and take the summer off. . . .

Some colleges operate on a trimester system (three terms a year) or a quarter system (four terms a year), and each college determines how long the terms run and how many you attend in a year.

And then there are colleges that run shorter terms in which students take just three courses at a time instead of the traditional four or five and colleges that run courses of various lengths at the same time in the same semester. Parents: Chances are that college schedules are a lot more varied than you and your son or daughter thought.

Questions 25 and 26 ask your kid to jot down how many weeks courses last (keeping in mind that courses might run different lengths of time at a college) and to check off whether each college on the LLCO (that is, your son or daughter’s Long List of College Options) uses semesters, trimesters, quarters, or something else.

2. Innovative Options

What might that something else be? Well, for example, Colorado College has a unique Block Plan, where students take all of their courses on a one-at-a-time schedule, with each course about three and a half weeks long and taught typically from 9:00 a.m. to noon each weekday. That schedule is so intriguing to me that I would like to go back to college myself.

Innovative scheduling options also come from universities that want to make room for significant cooperative (co-op) work experiences–meaning that students study full time in most terms, but then work full time in one or more terms in order to gain important job experience. (See the workbook for more details.) This is a great option for kids who are career oriented from the get-go and want to make some real money and some real connections in the working world while still in school.

Question 27 asks students to jot down any truly innovative scheduling options among the colleges on their LLCO.

Well, this was an easy week: three short, but sweet, questions. And I think that these questions could actually make a big difference in a student’s final decision about where to apply and where to enroll, with other aspects of colleges being equal. There is truly something for everyone now in the world of college schedules.

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Episode 171: Why the College’s Academics Matter–Obviously

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Today’s episode is about Step 8 of your kid’s summer homework. That’s 8 out of 14 steps, all of which are explained in our series of episodes this summer and also, with more examples and details, in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Workbooks are still available from Amazon if you want one for your son or daughter.

Step 8 is about the topic that most people think is most critical to choosing a college–that is, academics. Most people would say that it is what college is all about–or, at least, mainly about; or, at least, hopefully mainly about. Our College Profile Worksheet from the workbook has six questions in this section, which can be answered by reviewing each college’s website.

1. Schools and Colleges

First, let’s talk about the divisions that make up universities, in case your son or daughter has any on his or her Long List of College Options (that’s LLCO, for short). And, by the way, we hope that there are at least two or three. Here is what we explained to students in the workbook:

As you know by now, universities and large institutes (like Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are made up of schools and/or colleges that focus on different disciplines. Some of these institutions are composed of a small number of schools/colleges (say, four or five), but some are composed of quite a large number (as many as 15 or more). Some schools/colleges are only for graduate or professional students, who already have a bachelor’s degree; examples of these are law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine. Some schools/colleges within a university or institute are only for undergraduate students. And some schools/colleges within a university or institute serve both undergraduate and graduate students. You have to do some careful reading when researching which are which, but you will find all of them listed in the Academics section of a college’s website.

By the time you answer this question for five or six institutions, you will see that lots of their colleges/schools have the same name, like Business, Management, Education, Health Care, Social Work, Journalism, Engineering, and Architecture. Some have quite similar names, like various versions of Arts and Sciences for the liberal arts and sciences school that virtually all large institutions have. But some have really novel and interesting names, too.

You will need to figure out which school/college you are most interested in applying to because many institutions will not let you apply to more than one school/college within the institution. Think hard about that right now, while you are taking the time to read about all of them.

Question 19 asks your kid to jot down the schools/colleges within each institution on his or her LLCO and, then, to check off the ones that serve undergraduate students and double check the one that he or she is most interested in.

2. Academic Departments and Majors

Next, your son or daughter will need to go two steps further: first, to look at the academic departments at each institution and, then, to look at possible majors. This is what we said in the workbook:

Universities obviously have more departments across all of its schools/colleges than smaller liberal arts colleges have. There is often an alphabetical listing of all of the departments in the Academics section of a college’s website.

You can’t possibly write them all down and don’t need to. Just start focusing on the ones that interest you most. Even if you are not sure what you want to study in college, you will need to narrow the field in order to complete most college applications.

We know that this will begin to seem like a lot of detail if you are not at all sure what you want to study. Unfortunately, many college applications will ask you to specify a major. Some applications will also ask you to specify a second choice and even a third choice for a major. We say “unfortunately” because we know that many high school students are not ready to make this decision yet. We also know that many college students change their minds after they choose a major–even after a couple of college semesters. All that is to be expected from college freshmen and sophomores.

Nonetheless, you are likely to have to make a tentative decision about a major in order to complete at least some of your college applications. So, now is the time to start that research.

Getting a head start on thinking about majors will also give you a chance to talk to your high school teachers about your choices. For example, those of you who imagine majoring in biology and going to medical school eventually will notice that large universities have many majors within the Biology Department. If you can’t figure out which exact major(s) would be right for you, you won’t make a convincing case for yourself in your application.

Question 20 asks your kid to jot down at least several academic departments that he or she is interested in, and Question 21 asks him or her to jot down at least several majors that he or she is interested in.

3. Core Curriculum

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into what, if any, core curriculum each institution offers. This is what we wrote:

For the purpose of this discussion, we will refer to this centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum,” though you might hear it referred to as a “general education curriculum” or as “distribution requirements.” What it means is that all students in a college or in a specific college/school within a larger university or institute are usually required to take one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining core requirements, and some definitions are more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning that there are many different requirements that have to be met, which might add up to 10 or more courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have far fewer requirements for either the number of courses or the exact courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the purpose of a core curriculum. The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues raised in many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of academic subjects could make a difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that many liberal arts colleges as well as the arts and sciences college/school within many large institutions would require and proudly support a core curriculum for its students. . . .

Another advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools–like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without require­ments in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of these fields and would never know what they had missed.

Now, let’s talk about those colleges that go one step further and require certain courses of all students–the actual courses, not just a number of courses in certain academic fields. . . . When a college decides to require specific courses, it is because its professors feel that those courses are most critical to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and/or to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. . . .

In our virtual college tour, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were truly impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite challenging for students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate it.

Question 22 asks students to check off whether each college on their LLCO has a core curriculum and, if so, to jot down the exact requirements listed on the website.

4. Study Abroad Options

And now, one of my favorite topics and one that I feel quite strongly about! We wrote this to students:

When you were making your LLCO, we suggested that you put one college outside the U.S. on your list. We were serious about that. By the way, you are likely to find that the college you picked is actually cheaper to attend than a private college here in the U.S., and you will see that many colleges offer degree programs taught in English.

But, for those of you who don’t want to go to a college for four years in another country, take a close look at the study abroad options available at each college on your LLCO. These days, many colleges have fantastic study abroad programs, which make it logistically easy for you to study outside the U.S. These programs are already carefully set up, and they offer housing and other support while you are there. Some colleges have their own campuses in foreign countries, while others partner with a foreign university.

Some colleges strongly encourage their students to take a semester abroad. And a few colleges even require their students to study abroad. [See the workbook for examples.]

For future reference, if a college you love doesn’t have its own study abroad program, don’t forget about what the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) has to offer. Based in Stamford, Connecticut, AIFS operates a wide range of outstanding summer, semester-long, and year-long programs in over 20 countries on five continents. . . . All of our firsthand experiences with AIFS have been fantastic.

Question 23 on the College Profile Worksheet asks students to jot down the study abroad options that the college offers–both locations and programs, including any important details.

5. Grading Practices

And, finally, here is something we didn’t start thinking about ourselves till more recently, and I regret that. Here is what the workbook says:

We bet that grading practices are not something most students consider before choosing a college–perhaps because they assume that colleges are quite traditional when it comes to awarding final course grades. Most colleges do, in fact, use some kind of numerical scale (typically, with a 4.0 as an A) or letter scale (typically, from A though F). These traditional grading practices might seem just fine to you.

However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress. For example, take Hampshire College (an excellent and innovative private college in Amherst, Massachusetts), where students receive written narrative evaluations from professors on their assignments and as their final course grades. No numbers and no letters. . . .

Colleges that use narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades praise their value in teaching their students more about their own strengths and weaknesses, in getting their students to focus on their learning instead of on their grades, and in building better and more stimulating relationships between their students and their professors.

Who knew this was an option? Question 24 asks students to check off whether the college has a traditional grading system and, if not, to jot down the way that student work is evaluated instead.

Well, that brings us to the end of six critical questions about what your kid’s academic life might be at college. And what could be more important than that?

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Episode 169: Why the College’s Enrollment Matters

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Today we are going to talk about Step 6 of your kid’s summer homework, as explained in our episodes throughout the summer and also more elaborately in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  So, order a workbook from Amazon for your son or daughter if you want the longer version and the actual worksheets.

We are up to Questions 8 through 16 on the College Profile Worksheet this week as your kid answers nine questions about student enrollment at each college on his or her Long List of College Options (or LLCO, for short).  The questions are about how many students are enrolled and what their personal characteristics are.

By the way, it occurs to me that your kid could be following along with us and doing the “questions of the week” for each college on the LLCO, but that means that he or she is going back to each college website or College Navigator profile every week as new questions are posed.  That seems a bit inefficient.  On the other hand, when your son or daughter gets accustomed to finding information on a college website or on College Navigator about a certain topic, it might turn out to be efficient to find that information in a similar place on each website or in each College Navigator profile–thus, making the whole process not really so inefficient as it seems.  Of course, you could advise your kid to do some of each:  Go along with us each week for a handful of colleges to make sure it is clear what to do and then, at the end of the summer, go back and finish up the other colleges by doing all of the questions for one college at a time with only one trip to the website and College Navigator profile.  That’s your family’s call.

With that said, although today’s Questions 8 through 16 on the College Profile Worksheet can be answered from a college’s website (especially by looking at the common data set), we think that it is actually easier to get most of the answers by using a college’s profile at College Navigator.  You might think that enrollment is just a matter of a number or two, but you are going to see that there’s a lot more to think about here.

1. Number of Undergraduate Students

Let’s start with the obvious:  number of undergraduate students.  This is what we explained to kids (though the workbook provides additional detail about exactly where to find the right numbers):

Here is one very important thing to remember when you are jotting down undergraduate enrollment for each of the colleges on your LLCO:  Be consistent about what statistic you use.  For example, some colleges include part-time and full-time students in their enrollment count; others separate them.  Sometimes, it is hard to know what students are included.  Ideally, you should use numbers that mean the same thing from college to college so that you can compare the sizes of the undergraduate student body as accurately as possible.

Our vote for where to find that undergraduate enrollment number is College Navigator.  After you search for your college, you will see many categories of data that are available.  Click on Enrollment.  You will refer to this category a lot as you fill out this section of the College Profile Worksheet.

Under Enrollment, you will notice that the figures are probably for the fall of the preceding school year.  Those figures are fine to use, because most colleges do not have huge enrollment changes from year to year.

Question 8 asks students to jot down the undergraduate enrollment of the college.  That’s the easy part.  Here is what we said about my personal pet peeve in judging the size of that undergraduate enrollment:

Eventually, you will have to consider whether the size of the undergraduate student body matters to you.  We think that this issue is given too much weight by many high school students and their parents.  We often hear kids say things like this:  “I think I would like to go to a small school.  The University of (fill in the blank) seems too big to me.”  Of course, a big university might seem overwhelming to a high school senior.  But perhaps that is because most high school seniors have spent no time at all in a large university setting.  We believe that most high school seniors have no rational basis for making a valid judgment about student body size.

And, although it is tempting, we don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school.  If you are coming from a small public high school or a small private school, we understand that you might feel that you would get lost in the shuffle of a large university.  We understand that, for you right now, a large academic setting might be outside your 17-year-old comfort zone.  But that is no reason to assume that you would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance a year from now.

Not a year goes by that I don’t hear remarks like that from students I am counseling individually; and, most of the time, they admit their short-sightedness after I talk them through the argument in the workbook.  So, parents, do the same for your kid.  By the way, parents, sometimes you are the biggest offenders here by imposing your own prejudices about size on your kids.

2. Breakdown by Enrollment Status and Demographics

Often, however, you will find that the types of students at a college are more important the number of them.  Let’s look at a few categories of student enrollment.  These figures are provided in various ways in the College Navigator college profiles in the Enrollment category, including in very-easy-to-understand color-coded pie graphs/pie charts/circle graphs (the workbook tells your kid exactly how to identify which figures to use and offers examples of colleges with various patterns of enrollment).

Here are the breakdowns we suggest that your son or daughter and you consider:

Question 9:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by full-time vs. part-time attendance

Some colleges–especially prestigious private four-year colleges–have relatively few part-time students compared to, say, large public universities with many schools and many diverse programs. . . .

Part-time students are not worse students; however, part-time students do likely lead fuller, more complicated, more off-campus lives than traditional freshmen enrolling right out of high school, especially if those freshmen are living on campus.  As a result, colleges with high part-time enrollment might have a bit of a different feel on campus compared to colleges where almost all of the students are there full time (and, especially, where many of them are living on campus in residential housing).  It’s something to consider.

Question 10:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by gender and any other gender identity information or policies found on the college website or in discussion with the Admission Office

Unless you have been talking about going to a single-sex college, this statistic might not even be on your radar screen.  Nonetheless, it might be something worth thinking about.

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent).  Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). . .

We should note here that we have not yet seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female.  However, if you are looking for a college that is particularly accepting of more diverse gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by looking further on the college’s website and by calling the Admission Office and asking about relevant data and policies.

Question 11:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by race/ethnicity

Unless you have been talking about going to an HBCU or about seeking out an HSI, you might not have been thinking hard about the racial or ethnic background of students at the colleges on your LLCO.  But it might be something worth considering, depending on your comfort level with members of other racial and ethnic groups in an education setting.  For example, if you attend a racially and ethnically mixed high school, you would likely feel comfortable in a similar sort of college population.  However, if you attend a high school that is not racially and ethnically diverse, it might be even more important to find a college that is–in order to prepare yourself better for the world of work and for life.

We have talked about the racial and ethnic diversity of colleges in our podcast episodes, and we noted that some colleges are not nearly as diverse as we would have guessed they were.  For example, we looked at a geographically diverse sample of nine large and small public flagships, some highly selective and others less selective.  The percentage of black students ranged from just 2 percent to 15 percent.  The Hispanic/Latino numbers ranged from just 3 percent to 10 percent.

On the other hand, we know quite a few very selective private colleges and universities where the percentages of black and Hispanic/Latino students exceed these public university numbers.  That is worth thinking about–whether you are black or Hispanic/Latino yourself or whether you simply want to attend a college with a diverse student population.

Question 12:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by student residence and any other interesting facts on the college website about where its students come from

It is useful, we think, to see just how many undergraduate students at a college are from the state where that college is located.  Generally, we believe it is better to go to a college where you will meet students from all over–all over the U.S., but also from all over the world.  Living and working with students of many national backgrounds in a relatively safe and protected environment, like a college, is one way for you to gain the interpersonal skills you will need for a lifetime.

As we have said before, almost all colleges like the idea of having students from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world.  Many, many colleges proudly say on their websites how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from.  While public universities have a duty to serve the students of their own state, even they like to draw students from other states and other countries.  And remember that you might get into a college far away from home that your grades and test scores and activities could not get you into close to home–because, for that faraway college, you bring desirable geographic diversity.  Think about that.

In case you are wondering, a college’s own website will often break down enrollment even further than College Navigator to give you additional facts, like the five states sending the most undergraduate students or the most new freshmen or the percent of students who come from neighboring states or who come from the region the college is located in.  All of that might be food for thought as you review colleges on your LLCO.

Question 13:  Any interesting information about support services targeted for particular groups of students, especially if you are a member of that group

While support services–like academic advising, personal counseling, and employment assistance–can be useful to any undergraduate student, these support services are often particularly important to groups of students who might find it more difficult to adjust to college life, either socially or academically, especially when they find themselves in the minority of students on a college campus.

If you identify with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, or another group, you should take a look at whether each college on your LLCO has support services targeted for you. . . . Why?  Because successful support services can make all the difference between dropping out and graduating.

Question 14:  The retention rate for full-time students who returned to the college for a second year

Retention rate tells you what percent of freshmen come back to the college the next year as sophomores.  In other words, it tells you how well the college keeps its students coming back for more.

There are many reasons that kids leave college between their first and second years, and some of those reasons are certainly beyond a college’s control.  Nonetheless, you probably want to be looking for colleges with a high retention rate–at least 80 percent or better.  Many top-ranked colleges will post a retention rate above 90 percent.

Question 15:  The 4-year and 6-year graduation rates for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees

Graduation rate is exactly what you think–the percent of students who actually graduated from the college.  But there is a lot more detail available in College Navigator than you will ever need to know.

Obviously, we all hope that you will get out of college four years after you start, even though many students don’t do that anymore.  We hope that, and you probably hope that.  But your parents really hope that.  Not getting out in four years will run up your college costs even higher than they are already going to be.  You need to stay focused and get out of college in four years.

The higher the 4-year graduation rates are, the better.  Rates over 80 percent are good, though they might be lower in big universities, especially public ones.  So, judge accordingly.

Question 16:  The graduate enrollment of the college

Whether a college (or, more often, a university) has graduate students at all is an important aspect of choosing a college for some students.  Some students and parents like the idea of advanced scholarship being available on campus and of professional schools (like law and medicine and journalism) being right there–either to add prestige generally or to serve as motivation or even the next stop for a successful undergrad.  On the other hand, some parents and even some college professors think that graduate students distract a college from paying adequate attention to the needs and education of the undergraduates; they also feel that too many graduate students (rather than college professors) end up teaching the freshman-level courses in too many disciplines.

Well, Questions 8 through 16 are a lot to think about.  It was a big week.  If you haven’t done that much thinking for each college on your LLCO, you aren’t ready to decide where to apply.  But don’t worry.  There are 36 questions still to go!  Plenty of time to think?

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Episode 168: Why the College’s Community Location Matters

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Today we are going to talk about Step 5 of your kid’s summer homework.  If you have forgotten, this summer homework is based on our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  Get one from Amazon for your son or daughter before they are all gone!

In the last episode, we asked your kid to do some research about the history and mission of each college on his or her Long List of College Options (or LLCO, for short) and to answer the first four questions on our College Profile Worksheet.  Well, there are only 48 questions to go, so let’s knock a few off in this week’s episode.

1. College Location and Type of Community

All three of today’s questions on the College Profile Worksheet can be answered easily by looking at a college’s website.  The first one, Question 5, is really simple:  It’s the location (that is, the city/town and state) where the college is located.  I am just going to say that your son or daughter should have already known this, but maybe didn’t.  We have actually worked with kids who were convinced they wanted to go to a certain college and yet had no idea where it was located.  I mean, they knew might have known the state, but had no idea what the town was.  That’s really not okay.

And, that brings us directly to the next question, which we wrote about this way:

The type of community a college is located in might be very important to you and your parents, but for very different reasons.  Some students can’t wait to get away from the type of community they grew up in, while others can’t imagine being comfortable in a new physical and cultural environment.

You need to know the community setting for each college on your LLCO so that you can decide whether the setting makes a difference to you.  How will you think about that decision? . . .

Are cities great?  They are.  Urban centers offer a general sense of excitement, along with many cultural opportunities (museums and theaters and concert halls and so on).  They have ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity, which is a plus for many families.  Many cities also have good public transportation, which is a plus for college students who don’t have their own cars.  Finally, many cities have more than one college (and some have a lot more than one college), which gives students an opportunity to meet all kinds of students and make all kinds of friends.

But are the suburbs great?  They are, in a different way.  Suburbs are relatively safe, for one thing, making them a good choice in the minds of lots of students (and lots of parents).  They are also likely to be cheaper in terms of everyday living expenses, including movies, drug store items, groceries, and off-campus meals.  They also might offer convenient commuter transportation options for getting into a nearby city, so that you can have the best of both worlds.

But are rural communities great?  They are, again in a different way.  Similar to suburbs, they are likely to be safe and low cost, when it comes to everyday spending.  But, maybe more important for the students who are attracted to rural colleges, many rural communities offer a scenic and unspoiled environment, which lends itself to loads of outdoor sports and recreation, like hiking and biking.

But are small towns great?  They are, too, in a still different way.  Small towns are not really rural themselves, though they might be set in a rural area.  They are not really suburban themselves, because they are not right outside a bigger city.  And they are certainly not urban in terms of size, though they might have a substantial downtown, with cultural and social activities readily available.  But, whatever they are, small towns are the locations of many of our nation’s colleges.  Many of these small towns are “great college towns,” according to the students who go there and, interestingly enough, according to the people who live there.

Question 6 asks students to check off the type of community the college is located in.

2. What About the Community?

The final question in this step looks at what we call “cool stuff about the community.”  Here is what we mean:

We can’t tell you exactly what to look for here, but you will know it when you see it.  In fact, as you do your research, you will see that some college websites have whole sections devoted to talking about the community that surrounds the college.  For example, colleges in beautiful rural settings often talk about the nature walks, biking paths, hiking trails, waterfalls, lakes, forests, and so on that the college’s students have easy access to.

Some colleges boast about their ranking on one list or another, like “the best college towns in America” or “the most affordable college towns,” published by various magazines and college-oriented publications.

Are there great college towns?  There are, but do you care?  While none of this matters to some students and their families, others find the attributes of the community to be decisive.  And what appeals to one family does not appeal to another family at all.  Just talk to kids who are dying to be in the excitement of New York City and others who can’t wait to be in the splendor of Boulder, Colorado.

While we don’t recommend choosing a college based on its surrounding community, some communities will likely be more attractive to your son or daughter and to you than others So, it doesn’t hurt to have the information available when deciding where to apply.

Question 7 asks your kid to jot down information and advertising claims about the college’s community and surrounding area, including natural beauty, historic sites, entertainment venues, restaurants, recreation opportunities, and so on.  Really, whatever interests your kid–just in case it turns out to make a difference.

Well, that’s seven questions down on the College Profile Worksheet–and just 45 to go.  This was an easy week.  Call it an early Fourth of July celebration!  Next week might be a bit more difficult.  Stay tuned!

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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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Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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