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Sunday, March 4, 2012

How not to choose a college: don't ask Aunt Rose

When I was 16 my Aunt Rose helped me decide on what college to attend. This was a bit odd since I had no reason to believe that Aunt Rose (who was a substitute teacher in an elementary school) knew anything about colleges. But when she told me that Carnegie Tech was a very good school, I took it seriously.

I chose which schools to apply to by deciding that since I was good at math, I should be a math major and that since I liked real things, I should study math in an engineering school. I got a list of engineering schools and picked a few and applied. I got into them all so I needed to choose one. Aunt Rose cast the deciding vote.

I had visited most of them with my parents the previous summer and was impressed that the computer at Carnegie Tech was very big.

What set me off thinking about this was a sign I passed while in a taxi yesterday in New York. It was billboard for St Joseph’s College, a school I have certainly never heard of, and it advertised that it was the “most affordable top-tier college in Brooklyn and Long Island.”

I didn’t know there were any top tier colleges in Brooklyn or Long Island and have no idea which is the most affordable. But I couldn’t help but think about the unfortunate students who might take this billboard seriously. They would have been better off with Aunt Rose.

What does it mean to be a top tier college I (or a very good school)? What is St Joseph’s in the top tier of? Unfortunately for American students, most people’s answer to that relies on US News and World Report, a magazine that ranks hundreds of colleges on the basis of average SAT scores and average class size and a range of other variables that tell one very little about the quality of the school.

In some sense these rankings do a terrible disservice to the colleges they rank because they make them obsess about the variables tracked by the US News rather than obsessing about real quality. Still they manage to get Harvard and Yale and MIT at the top of the rankings and that probably isn’t all that wrong.

Professors rank schools (not explicitly) by asking if they or their colleagues would rather be there than where they are. There is much agreement amongst them. It is analogous to asking if a minor league baseball player would like to join the Yankees. He would. And similarly, a professor at the University of Illinois would prefer to be at Harvard.  But actually, that might not be true. There are departments at Illinois that are better than their counterparts at Harvard and there are probably plenty of professors there who would not accept an offer at Harvard.

But when it comes to that top tier college called St Joseph’s, not so much. Although I know nothing about this school, it is safe to assume that the entire faculty would leave for Harvard in a New York minute.

Why am I writing all this?

Because when I was 16 I made a major decision in my life with no knowledge, no really useful advice, and I suffered for it. I had no business being a math major. It was not important that I attend an engineering school, and Carnegie Tech was not that great an experience for me. What was good about my decision was that Carnegie Tech had a large and first rate Artificial Intelligence faculty and that that attracted my attention and altered my career choices in a very positive way.

This was all random of course. Apart from having seen a big computer there, I had no idea that this piece of serendipity would matter to me. In other words, I was lucky. Aunt Rose happened to be right, although she didn’t know why, because Carnegie Tech wasn’t a great place to study anthropology or linguistics for example, which became two of my interests.

Advising students that they must go to college, as is the rule these days, and advising them where to go via billboards or their Aunt Rose is simply absurd.

These are important life choices and ranking in a magazine or nonsense about being top-tier should not be deciding factors.

We need to start helping students make sensible choices about whether they should go college at all (my advice, take a few years off after high school, older students do better in college because they know what they want.) And, we need to help them find out who they are, whether college is for them, and what they would do when they get there. Colleges are very bad at helping with this. Changing the high school curriculum to something more diverse that is less about test scores and grades would help a lot in this regard.

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