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 86: Assignment #6–Looking at College Location, Not Distance

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

Your teenager and you should be learning a lot about colleges if you have been keeping up with your assignments. Yes, we know it’s summer, but you will thank us in September. Let’s review what you have done so far (we hope):

Looking at College Location Not Distance on USACollegeChat podcast Episode 86

This episode’s assignment will be, I think, one of the more enjoyable onesnot so many facts and figures.

1. Your Assignment #6

Download the Assignment #6 Worksheet

For Assignment #6, your teenager and you are going to look at the location of each collegethat is, the type of community the college is located in and the cool things about that community. So, in this assignment, we are not talking about the college itself at all, but rather the surroundings your teenager will be living in for four years.

2. Urban, Suburban, or Rural

As we said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, on sale just for the summer from Amazon), the type of community a college is located in is a lot more important than you might think to some students and some families. Furthermore, 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. For example, both Marie and my oldest child, Jimmy, wanted to stay in the kind of urban environment that they both grew up in. In fact, going to school in a city was Jimmy’s number one college requirement when he was looking.

Are cities great? They are. Cities offer a general excitement and many cultural opportunities (museums and theatersand the ballet, of course); they have ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity among their residents, which is a plus for many families. Most cities also have good to great public transportation, which is a help to college students who don’t have their own cars. Finally, most cities have 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 for lots of students. They are also likely cheaper in terms of everyday living expenses, including movies, and drug store items, and the occasional off-campus meal. They also might offer convenient commuter transportation options for getting into a nearby exciting citythe best of both worlds.

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

So, whether Broadway or the Pacific Ocean or Pikes Peak is your teenager’s thing, you can find a college there.

The first task on the Assignment #6 worksheet, is simply to classify the location of each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options as urban, suburban, or rural. I am also thinking that adding a category called “small town” makes sense, given the locations, especially, of many small private colleges in the small towns of the U.S.; these small towns are not really rural themselves (though they might be set in a rural area), are not really suburban themselves (because they are not outside a big city), and are not really urban themselves, for sure.

3. Cool Stuff About the Community

The second part of Assignment #6 is something we like to call “cool stuff about the community.” Now, we can’t tell you exactly what to look for here, but you will know it when you see it. We will tell you that some college websites have whole sections devoted to talking about the community that surrounds the college. I have noticed that this is especially true for colleges in lovely rural settings; those colleges like to talk about the nature trails and bike trails and waterfalls and lakes and forests and so on that the college’s students have ready access to.

Some colleges boast about their place on one commercial list or another, like “the best college towns in America” or “the most affordable college towns” or whatever, published by various magazines and college-oriented publications. I know that we quoted these from time to time in our nationwide virtual college tour (Episodes 27 through 53). Some colleges will even reference the spots they earned on these lists in the “At a Glance” pages or lists of awards that the college has won. I recall that one of my favorites among these lists was from Travel + Leisure magazine, which is actually called “America’s Best College Towns.” Deb Hopewell opened her article in Travel + Leisure with the following paragraphs:

‘Depending on how you look at it, Santa Cruz is either the best or the worst place to spend your college years,’ says Keijiro Ikebe, a Silicon Valley visual designer who graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2002.

‘With the town surrounded by shimmering water and lush forests under sunny blue skies, the last thing you want to do is spend a beautiful day taking notes in a lecture hall.’

After all, ivy-covered walls, stately libraries, and cafeteria meals don’t make a great college town. It’s more about the distractionsand Santa Cruz is overflowing with them. There are miles of beaches with some of the best surfing in the country; mountain-bike trails at Wilder Ranch State Park; artisanal coffee bars almost as numerous as craft-beer taps; and your nightly choice of any genre of live music.

This kind of lively atmosphere earned Santa Cruz a place among the top 20 college towns in America, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in our latest America’s Favorite Places survey. They evaluated hundreds of towns for live music, pizza, dive bars, hamburgers, and other qualities that add up to a great college town.” (quoted from the article)

And, by the way, historic sites also figure into the equation. If you are curious, here are the top 20 college towns, according to Travel + Leisure readers:

  • Syracuse, NY
  • Lafayette, LA
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Fort Collins, CO
  • Duluth, MN
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • San Luis Obispo, CA
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Williamsburg, VA
  • Bozeman, MT
  • Boone, NC
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS

In case you want a different view, you can look at Forbes magazine, which has its own method of calculating its list of best and worst college towns by using 23 academic, social, and financial measures. At the top of the Forbes list, as reported last December by Kathryn Dill, is Ann Arbor (MI), followed by College Station (TX), Iowa City (IA), Provo (UT), and Gainesville (FL). At the bottom of the list is Paterson (NJ), preceded by Yonkers (NY), Germantown (MD), Bridgeport (CT), and Arlington (VA).

There are plenty more lists you can look at, including the most bike-friendly campuses (either the University of Texas at Austin or Stanford University, depending which list you useyes, there are two such lists!). But you can also just read up on the community surrounding the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. If those colleges are in communities worth being proud of, the college will undoubtedly write about it on the website.

So, the second task on the Assignment #6 worksheet is to jot down all the cool stuff you can find about the community, community attractions, and the natural beauty (if any) surrounding each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. While your teenager shouldn’t choose a college to attend based on its surrounding community, it is clear that some communities are far more attractive to some students than othersand it never hurts to have the information available when choosing.

Download the Assignment #6 Worksheet

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Episode 10: What Are Some More of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list

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Why urban kids might want to go to college in urban settings
Whether extracurricular activities could really be a deal breaker
Why high school/college partnerships are so advantageous

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This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining more of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list.

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Episode 10

As we said in our last episode, it is critical to understand what factors—if any—are the decisive ones for you and your teenager in choosing colleges to apply to. We characterized these factors as deal breakers—that is, a factor so important that it would cause you to rule out whole categories of colleges because of it. In our last episode, we talked about four such factors: (1) colleges away from home or at home; (2) two-year or four-year colleges; (3) public or private colleges; and (4) large or small colleges. In this episode, we are offering five more deal breakers to consider.

1. Selective or Not Selective Colleges?

This is the factor that most guidance counselors bring up first: selectivity. You have probably heard people say that a student should apply to a “safety” school that he or she is sure to be admitted to; a couple of “reach” schools that would be great, but might be beyond or just beyond what the student’s high school record warrants; and then some others in the middle that the student has a reasonable chance of being admitted to, but not guaranteed. That is common sense.

As for a safety school, keep in mind that some public community colleges and some public four-year colleges can serve as safety schools for some students. We will talk more about that for students in New York City and New York State in the final episode of this series, which will focus on the public City University of New York (CUNY) and the public State University of New York (SUNY).

As for “reach” schools, keep in mind, that applying to colleges is time consuming and expensive (unless you have application-fee waivers from the colleges, which are sometimes based on family income and sometimes based on the student’s academic achievements). Applying to “reach” schools that are significantly more selective than a student’s high school grades and SAT or ACT scores would warrant might just be a waste of time. Should you rule out applying to the most selective schools, given the chances that being admitted are slim, even for the best students? Is selectivity a deal breaker for you and your teenager?

2. Urban, Suburban, or Rural Colleges?

Is the community setting a decisive factor for you or your teenager? Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to urban, suburban, and rural settings, most of which are common sense.

For example, some students like the idea of going to a college in a city because of the general excitement that cities offer, the many cultural opportunities that are available, the diversity of the people and the likely diversity of the college students, and the ease of getting around by public transportation (in some cities more than others). Some parents hate the idea of sending their teenager to college in a city because of safety issues, too many distractions from studying, and the likelihood that city living will be expensive.

On the other hand, for example, some students and parents like the idea of a rural campus, perhaps in or near a small town somewhere, where students are safe on and off campus, the environment is unspoiled, the campus itself is idyllic, there are fewer distractions from studying, and living costs are relatively low.

Some students are dying to get away from the type of community they grew up in, and others cannot imagine fitting in or being comfortable in a new physical and social environment. So, is the type of community setting a deal breaker for you or your teenager?

3. Colleges with Certain Majors or Certain Activities?

In our first series, Understanding the World of College, we discussed colleges that are known for their academic specialties, like music or art or engineering or business. Some specialized colleges teach only that subject—like Berklee College of Music. Others have strong specialized schools or colleges within a larger university—like the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Others have strong departments in certain fields—like the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University or the modern languages departments at Middlebury College.

If your teenager has a particular field of study in mind, then you will need to find a college that offers or specializes in that major. Some majors are easy to find and are offered by most (though not all) colleges—like English and mathematics and history. Others are harder to find, especially technical majors—like architecture and engineering and computer science. Although many students will change their minds about a major after a month or a year or even two years in college, those going into college with a clear idea of what they want to study will probably need to make the availability of that major a deal breaker in putting colleges on their list.

Sometimes an extracurricular activity is just as important to a teenager—and even to a parent—as the academic part of college. Sports teams are probably the prime example. Your family might be looking for—rather, insisting on—a college with a competitive football, swimming, track, basketball, lacrosse, or crew program and so on. Sports teams could be a deal breaker for both boys and girls, of course. We would like to imagine that other activities would have the same appeal—for example, a great school newspaper, like The Cornell Daily Sun, for a long time Ithaca’s only morning newspaper; or a great glee club, like Yale University’s; or a great drama group, like the University of Pennsylvania’s Mask and Wig Club. But sports teams are probably it.

One more thing to say about sports: If your teenager has not been playing on high-powered high school teams or competitive community teams and has not been in serious talks with college recruiters before you start making your college list, he or she is not going to get a big sports scholarship. Some students harbor the dream that a sports scholarship is the way they will get to college and that professional sports is the way they will make a living after that. If you have a teenager with this mindset, make sure you get a real appraisal of his or her athletic ability from a reliable high school coach or administrator as soon as possible.

4. Colleges with a Special Focus?

Another topic we discussed in our first series was the many colleges that have a special focus—that is, single-sex colleges, faith-based colleges, colleges for students with special needs (like learning disabilities or hearing impairment), colleges with online courses or whole online degrees, the military service academies, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and so on. Any of these options could become a decisive factor in choosing colleges.

For example, your daughter might have her heart set on going to a women’s college. She might be drawn to the long-standing traditions or the leadership opportunities for young women or the social environment or even the famous alumni who attended women’s colleges. If you agree, then only women’s colleges would be on your daughter’s list. Or, your child might have his or her heart set on going to an HBCU, interestingly for all the same reasons we just cited for going to a women’s college—namely, the long-standing traditions or the leadership opportunities for young people or the social environment or even the famous alumni who attended. If you agree, then only HBCUs would be on your teenager’s list.

Clearly, choosing to apply only to colleges with a special focus will limit the number of options your family has to consider. To be sure, some of these choices are more limiting than others. For example, there are more than a thousand faith-based colleges to choose from, but only five military service academies.

5. Colleges with a Special Relationship to the Student’s Family or High School?

This can be a remarkably influential factor for students and for their families in making a college decision. Let’s start with the obvious: You work at a college and, even better, get free or reduced tuition for any of your children who enroll. This factor is tough to discount, especially if money is an issue. Putting money aside, parents likely feel comfortable with and/or proud of the college they work for, and students themselves might feel comfortable going there because they are already familiar with it. Even so, that might not be a strong enough reason to limit your teenager’s college list to just that one institution.

Another remarkably influential personal factor is where family members went to college. Many children attend—or want to attend—the alma mater of their parents or grandparents. We see even first-generation college students strongly considering the college attended by an older sibling. Family college connections can mean a lot—just like any other family traditions. Even so, again, that might not be a strong enough reason to limit your teenager’s college list to just those institutions attended by a family member.

Another personal factor that comes up more than you might think is having family members or close friends living where a college is located. Certainly, a parent who is reluctant to send a child to a college far away from home might be less anxious if a family member or close friend lived there—just in case of an emergency. For a student, too, having some family members or family friends nearby might ease the homesickness that comes with most students’ first days on campus.

The final factor in this category is not personal to the family, but rather is about the student’s high school. Some high schools have a relationship already built with a college, usually a nearby college. A noteworthy example of this is the growing number of Early College high schools, which have a carefully worked out agreement with a partner college typically to provide college credit courses to students while they are still in high school and frequently to admit those students into the college almost automatically, thus allowing a seamless transition from high school to college.

Other high schools have less elaborate arrangements with one or more colleges whereby students can take college courses for credit while in high school, banking those credits to transfer later to whatever college they attend; of course, it is even easier for those students to continue at the college where they have already earned those credits. Any of these arrangements between high schools and colleges can give students a streamlined pathway into that college, thus saving the time and effort and money expended in the typical application process. If your high school has such an arrangement with a college and if your teenager has taken advantage of it, it would be very hard to walk away from choosing that college as your only option—even if it just for the first year or two.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why urban kids might want to go to college in urban settings
  • Whether extracurricular activities could really be a deal breaker
  • Why high school/college partnerships are so advantageous

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