You’ve got a million and one things to consider when choosing where to spend the next two to four years of your post-high school life. As if deciding whether you’d prefer private or public, small or large, liberal arts or pre-professional isn’t enough, you must also consider one very important factor that will undoubtedly affect your college experience: location, location, location!
Perhaps you can see yourself out dancing at some of the city’s hottest nightclubs on a Friday night then wrestling your way to the counter at a crowded pizza place at 3 a.m. Or maybe you imagine how wonderful it will be away from the hustle and bustle of urban life and in a place where you can look out your window and see trees and the other buildings of your more rural college.
Or maybe you’re part of the vast majority that doesn’t have a clue what college campus environment is best for you!
Regardless, the last thing you want to do when choosing a college is to close your mind to any options right away.
Bill Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says that having an idea of what type of college campus environment you’d prefer is helpful, but reminds students that “rural” and “urban” are two of the many broad-based categories that demand exploration, not imagination.
“You don’t need a grand college tour to work your way through the sorting process,” he says. “Go to local, representative campuses. Look at the types of college campus environments that are out there and see what feels comfortable, then go through the time and expense of visiting other colleges of that type that meet your criteria nationwide.”
Gauge how you feel when walking through campuses and pay attention to what students are doing and how they are making use of their environments. Are they hanging out on the quad playing Frisbee and doing homework, or are they heading back from the subway after an evening out? Place yourself in those activities. How does it feel?
When touring a college, don’t limit yourself to the school’s grounds. Look around the city or town and check out student hotspots. Even if you think you know what fits for you, be wary of applying to schools in just one type of environment. Conley says that your preference may become much clearer in April than it was in November. “You don’t have to make your decision during the application process,” he says. “Diversify your applications and apply to different types of universities, then wait until the spring when you may know more about what you want.”
Rural colleges are often stereotyped as too quiet with little to do besides walk in the woods and do homework. Urban colleges are typified as pricey and overcrowded with academic buildings so spread out you need a bus pass to get between classes. It’s important to remember that every college campus, whether rural, suburban or urban, has its own unique atmosphere and culture, and that a school cannot be judged solely on where it is located.
Karen Parker, director of admissions at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., disagrees with the generalization that because a college is in a rural area there is little to do. “Rural college towns are focused on ideas, change and culture,” Parker says. “You end up with many of the benefits of urban living—good music, film, theater, arts, restaurants—without the hassles and high prices.”
Though cities also carry a stigma, Emily Schepis, a senior at Simmons College in Boston, says she can’t imagine herself anywhere else. “I like living here because the city becomes your campus.”
No matter what you choose, Parker advises students to think of a college as the place where you spend most—but not all—of your time. “Do you prefer the ability to focus on academics and campus community that a rural campus provides, yet plan to do urban community service or internships? You can go to college in a small town and organize these urban activities during school breaks, or just take off occasionally for a weekend of urban fun. Are you more comfortable with the greater anonymity and faster pace that a city provides, but eager to pursue hiking or kayaking as well? Choose an urban setting within a couple of hours of the outdoor terrain you need.”
Whether you pick a rural, suburban, or urban campus, your success depends on how well you adapt to and utilize the environment you choose.
Sarah Buckley is a 2003 graduate of Simmons College in Boston.
The ups and downs of rural and city life
When deciding whether the wilderness or the concrete jungle is the best place for you to spend your college career, here are a few things to consider:
Money Yes, your student ID can come in handy for discounts at restaurants, shops and other attractions, but cities are notorious for burning holes in students’ pockets. Count on everything from rent to food to entertainment being much more expensive in the city than in rural areas.
Transportation Though some rural college campuses do have public transportation systems, it is generally more convenient to have a car on campus (or know someone who does). Buses, trains, subways and taxis are the easiest ways to get around in cities because parking is at a premium.
Hands-on learning While cities use museums, businesses and other manmade facilities to aid in learning, rural areas tend to offer outdoor facilities to supplement academics. Because cities are hubs for manufacturing and commercial growth, you might find it possible to couple an internship in the offices of a major corporation with a full load of classes. Likewise, a rural campus might offer you the chance to study forestry, intern at a dairy farm or do field research with a marine biologist.
Security Most colleges, whether rural or urban, make student safety a priority. But sometimes it can be difficult for someone from a small town to feel secure in a city environment, just like a student from the city might feel daunted by the openness of a rural campus.
Community On self-contained rural campuses, students are likely to report feeling a strong sense of community. The majority of students live on campus, clubs and organizations are a large part of campus life, and the college tends to bring quality entertainment to the students rather than send students looking for it. Students in urban environments tend to use the city as their campus and find a unique sense of community in belonging to a part of the metropolis itself.