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Thursday, December 17, 2009

what college should I go to? (The concept of a “hot college.”)

The Daily Beast posted a list of “hot colleges” the other day which reminded me of exactly how insane this country has become about going to college. It is actually quite difficult to choose what college to attend. But, as a retired professor I find the concept of a “hot college” rather amusing. I can recall, when I was working at Yale, that every now and then, Brown was determined to be hotter than Yale. It was hard to fathom what this might mean. We had the same faculty we had the previous year, more or less, as did Brown. The quality of students was more or less the same at both schools. The campus hadn’t changed. How did Brown get hot, and then, later, get less hot?

When I was working at Northwestern, one year we were suddenly “hot.” This time I knew why. Our football team had played in the Rose Bowl the year before. This is, of course, a very clever way to choose a college – by examining the quality of its football team.

As a professor one is aware of other faculty in one’s field and in allied fields all across the world. Ask any professor about another university and he will judge the quality of that school by the quality of the faculty he knows or has heard of who teach there. This is not a bad measure, although it is an idiosyncratic one. Thus, I was surprised to find, on the Daily Beast’s top 15 list, some schools that I had either never heard of or certainly could not name a single faculty member there, namely: Elon University, University of Georgia, Washington and Lee, Ohio Wesleyan, University of St. Andrews.

Now, I have no ability to judge the quality of these schools, nor do I have any interest in disparaging them. I am concerned instead with the folly surrounding college entrance and college choice. So with that in mind what makes these schools “hot?”

According to the Daily Beast:

Elon is hot because: “Elon has gone out of its way to recruit applicants interested in the sciences by luring them with the possibility of undergraduate research,”

Ohio Wesleyan University is hot because: “Loren Pope’s called OW, “one of the best academic bargains in the country.”

University of St. Andrews is hot because: “More than a third of the students at St. Andrews’ come from abroad, and one academic year’s fees total less than $25,000.”

Washington and Lee is hot because: “funds went to establishing the merit-based Johnson Scholarships, which promise a full ride to about one-tenth of freshmen each year.”

University of Georgia is hot because: “$2.9 billion in aid has been meted out to students in the past 15 years.”

Clearly hotness has something to do with price, but that doesn’t explain why any state university isn’t considered hot in comparison to any private university since they are far cheaper and often quite good. And that certainly wouldn’t explain why Brown was hotter than Yale every now and again.

I found “being able to do undergraduate research” to be the funniest explanation of hotness. Why is that important exactly? And if it is important to a student, wouldn’t that be the kind of student who ought to attend a research university?

College counselors, the media, and the general paranoia about college that runs through the high schools these days, has made college selection a complex and frightening busyness. So here, without regard to “hotness” I will make a few points about how to choose a college.

1. Don’t put yourself in debt to go to college. Price does matter. If you can’t afford Yale, don’t attend Yale.
2. Know what a college actually offers. Attend a research university because you think you might want to do research in later life. A list of the top 50 research universities can be found in U.S. News and World Report. They are mostly the extended Ivies and the important state Universities. If you aren’t interested in research go somewhere else. I know that Yale is a nice brand name. If you want a brand name, go there, But there are plenty of places that will educate you as well.
3. Know what you want to be educated in. Do not go to college with no idea of what you want to learn about or are interested in doing later on. If you do that you will major in “sex and drugs and rock and roll” like everyone else and you will waste your time and your parent’s money. You can always put off college until you do know what you are interested in learning.
4. When you think you know what you want to learn find out if the people who are good at what you want to do actually teach that at the place you want to go. People say that schools are “good schools” without having a clue what the criteria might be. What is good for you may not be good for the next guy. You must know what the school is good at teaching. Find out.
5. Choose a place that looks like you. Visit. See what the students look like. They differ from place to place for many reasons. Find out where you feel comfortable.

Do not go to college because everyone you know is going to college. Go with a purpose. And -- avoid “hot schools.”

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