Selecting a college

[Originally posted on May 16, 2012]

As I talk with students about their plans for college, I am often times party to the decision process behind the selection of schools and majors. I am sometimes awestruck at the quality of decisions that are made. Just as often, however, I am dumbfounded at other decisions. I wanted to take a few minutes to write down some of the best and some of the most horrid reasons I have heard for selecting schools.

So here are a few thoughts and opinions that I have developed over the years about how to select a college.

Selecting a college

The process of selecting your future school has many factors to consider. This can be a difficult decision that requires a fairly large decision matrix. Some of the big decisions involved in state, out of state, private or public, tuition costs, housing costs, and proximity to family or friends. These are the obvious, and I am sure you will be considering these.

My TOP 5 GOOD DECISION points for selecting a college include:

Availability of credible majors – This is critical to your success in college. As I have written about elsewhere, a vast majority of students change their majors at least once during their college careers. Being at a school with a selection of credible majors should be a consideration for you in the event you are in that majority who make a change. A benefit to larger state universities are the large number of majors available and the ease of transferring to a new major should you decide.

Reasonable undergraduate infrastructure classes – Every major will have a core requirement for a wide range of different subjects. Smaller schools will only offer these core required classes once a year. College is not always a linear path to success. There will be times when you will need to drop a class, or other conflicts that may prevent you from being able to take a class when the school offers it. Larger schools and community colleges do a better job at offering alternate times for certain classes. Smaller schools don’t always have enough staff available. This should be something for you to consider carefully. Does it make sense for you to take many of the undergraduate core classes at a community college? It is cheaper, schedules are typically more flexible, and classes are much smaller. Just a thought.

Transfer credits – Real life can sometimes cause you to make changes. Finances, health, family situations, or your experiences at your chosen school may require you to change your plans. If you were to select school A, how easy would it be to transfer those credits to school B? You should check into this, or life could end up costing you an extra year taking classes you have already taken to satisfy graduation requirements.

Cross department cooperation – In the science and technology world, it is becoming rare to be involved only in a specific field. Electrical engineers, for example, are now expected to have a lot of computer science expertise. Mechanical engineers are expected to be able to handle electronics. Some schools have an excellent reputation for cross departmental projects and research. The University of Washington, for example, is very well known for collaboration between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. Can you find out about the school you are thinking about? This diversity will enable you to learn about subjects you might not otherwise be involved with.

Proximity to home – This is always a difficult decision for many students. On the one hand, staying in state and in fact staying close to/at home can be a huge benefit for costs and support. On the other hand, living on campus has it’s advantages of being immersed in the school experience. This is a decision you need to make for yourself, but keep in mind that having family support during school can make a huge difference. The costs are something you really need to consider. The difference between in and out of state tuition is a really big deal.

To counter these, here are the WORST 5 DECISION POINTS I have heard for selecting a college.

I don’t like the sports teams – Hands down, this is perhaps the worst decision point I have run into in helping students with college. A student from eastern Washington who wanted to do computer science decided against the University of Washington mostly on the fact that he was a committed Cougar fan. The UW is among the top 10 respected computer science departments in the world. This creates all sorts of opportunities for students. Bottom line: Unless you are planning to be a professional football/basketball player or depending on some sports scholarship that you ALREADY have been awarded, selecting a school based on something this trivial is a huge mistake. This should not even be part of the decision matrix. Select a college based on your personal expected outcome, what the school is going to do to help your future career. Basing a decision like this on who is playing football for 10 games a year is the height of immaturity. Get over it.

I will be close to my sweetheart – The transition from high school to college will involve a huge number of changes to your personal life, attitudes, and interests. It is fairly common for high school students to make college decisions based on relationships that have lasted through a year or two of high school. The number of high school relationships that survive through college turns out to be extremely low. I can’t find a definitive number, but my research on the subject is suggesting less than 10% of relationships make the transition, and less than 4% end up in marriage. Please try to be objective about this, even though it is an emotional subject. Select a college based on YOUR needs and interests. Where your high school sweetheart ends up shouldn’t be in your decision matrix. If it happens you end up the same place, that’s nice. Sorry folks, this is a bottom of the list data point.

Proximity to home – Yeah, OK, it made both lists! I have worked with a few students who have decided on Maine and Florida as their schools based on their proximity, or rather lack of proximity, to home. They wanted to get as far away from their families as possible. This was a HUGE factor in their chosen schools. If this sounds like your situation, please take a couple of steps back and realize that the difference between schooling in Montana vs Maine is not really an issue. Yes, you may want to be away from your family for valid reasons. However, after a relatively small circle of say an 8 hour drive, there is no distinct advantage to getting your self stuck up in the opposite corner of the country. There are a lot of choices. If you are going out of state, you are already going to be spending a substantial amount more on tuition. Shop around, find a school that interests you, and don’t worry so much about dodging your family.

Surfing / Garage Bands / Rock Climbing – Boy, I don’t want to get listed as a killjoy but some students pick schools based on cool things to do after class. Schools know this, and will market at you the ‘benefits’ of enrolling at their school with extra curricular activities. My favorite (aka most disappointing) is the engineering student who decided against MIT in favor of UCLA based on his desire to learn how to surf and the lure of studying at the beach. He has since graduated and never did try surfing and found that the beach was a difficult place to study. Others have been swayed by everything from rock bands to rock climbing, mountain biking and skiing. These are all a great deal of fun. This should also be at the bottom of your decision matrix if even on it.

Party Schools – Ok, here comes Mr Killjoy again! Nothing is more disappointing to me than seeing students make college selections based on the party scene at the school. It happens a lot, and is a really really poor decision. Some schools have a reputation as having a very active party / drug / drinking lifestyle. I have had a number of students drop out of Western Washington, for example, after spending two or three years not progressing due to social pressures to party it up every night. This is your decision. I can’t make it for you.

However, consider this: Your success in the future is built nearly entirely on the work of people who have come before you. As an engineer, you won’t need to invent the transistor. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain did that for you. You are working from what they did. You don’t need to reinvent the C computer language, Kernighan and Ritchie did that for you. You are working from what they did.  A huge group of people partied their way through high school and college. It was the 70’s and the 80’s. We have been there already. It didn’t work, and was a poor decision. You are working from what we did. Do better!