As if figuring out how to pay for your teen’s college education were not worrisome enough, the hype and frenzy associated with getting into a “good” college has never been greater.
College participation rates have soared during the past quarter century. So, too, has the message fueled by U.S. News & World Report and a host of college ratings: That your teen should attend the “best” college out there.
But what is the “best” college? And will attending it really make a difference in your teen’s life?
A Word About College Rank
Most of the college ratings and guides out there—Peterson’s, Fiske Guide, Princeton Review, etc.—don’t rank colleges; they present a set of information about the colleges they’re describing, including in some cases rating various elements of the college experience, and let the reader interpret the data.
U.S. News college ratings attempt to say that College A is “better” than College B. This scorecard approach to evaluating colleges is assailed by educators, who argue that rankings don’t measure the things that really count in a student’s college experience: student engagement in learning, student/faculty relations, classroom experiences, peer relations and so forth.
Attending a highly ranked college
The question naturally follows: Would it make a difference in your teen’s life to attend a college that has high college ratings, rather than one ranked toward the middle or lower end?
Like most institutions in society, colleges compete for clients (students) and resources based on a number of factors, including prestige of faculty, amount of endowment, variety of course offerings, success of athletic teams, size of classes and success of graduates.
Because wealth factors in so strongly to the U.S. News college rank, schools at the top of the rankings can generally afford to offer students more of the things that are typically considered keys to a successful college experience, including access to influential alumni networks.
So, yes, if your teen can get into a school with high college ratings, it might potentially make a difference in his or her life. The question is, will it?
Focus on the right fit before college rank
One of the problems with college rank and college ratings is that few, if any, measure student learning.
It is important to emphasize that all of the rankings, ratings and guidebook descriptions are generic. Your son or daughter might have what it takes to be successful wherever he or she goes to college, but end up performing poorly for reasons unrelated to the school’s reputation and finances.
Far more important to your teen’s academic success and happiness than college ratings is the issue of “fit”: If your teen does not achieve a good fit between his or her choice college and what that college has to offer, the quality of his or her college experience will diminish, regardless of college rank.
The good news is that there are many, many institutions where your teen will thrive.
Picking the right college
How, then, should you determine which set of colleges promises to offer your teen a rewarding undergraduate experience?
One of the best guides to this process was written by the late Ernest L. Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Considering College Quality, Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2001).
Boyer states that while there is no single model of “the good college,” colleges of high quality share seven common characteristics:
1. A clear mission. The college should have a well-defined focus, a clear and vital mission, and should embody its goals in “a living purpose” for the campus.
2. Attention to students. Students should be recruited with their best interests in mind. The college should regard the freshman year as something special, and work as hard at holding students as it does at getting them to campus in the first place.
3. A planned, flexible curriculum. Academic majors should broaden rather than restrict the student’s perspective. General and specialized education should be combined in an integrated core (rather than a loosely connected distribution arrangement).
4. A favorable classroom climate. The college should encourage students to be active learners and to pursue independent, self-directed study. Teaching should be valued equally with research; faculty members should be available to students.
5. Devoted resources to learning. The college should support its mission of learning both financially and philosophically. Libraries and technology should have ample funds.
6. Vibrant campus culture. The college should work to make the time spent outside of the classroom as meaningful as the time spent in class. Campus-wide activities and residence halls should encourage a sense of community, sustain traditions and stimulate social interaction.
7. Attention to outcomes. A high-quality college should focus on being sure that students can think clearly, are well-informed, able to integrate their knowledge, and able to apply what they have learned.
By keeping these characteristics in mind as you and your teen begin to investigate colleges, you’ll help ensure that the college he or she chooses to attend will indeed make a positive difference in his or her life.
Lynne M. Wiley, Ph.D., is a former college executive and the president of Upstate College Planning Services,upstatecollege.com.