Two million recent high school graduates are just now starting college. Many of them selected schools for the wrong reasons.
How did they pick them? Many played the ratings game, choosing the college highest in the rankings among those to which they were admitted.
Others chose a college because they liked the tour guide or thought they would make the most friends and be most comfortable.
Neither method makes sense.
Stick to the rankings? Which rankings: Those that measure the quality of teaching? The quality of research? The best program in your intended major? The most accessible professors? The medley of cost and performance criteria President Obama has proposed - tuition, graduation rates, earnings of alumni?
And what does it mean to be comfortable? To have the most people who look and think as you do? If so, you might as well stay in high school.
As professors and presidents who have taught and advised thousands of undergraduates, we suggest a different approach. Consider where you will thrive, both in the near term and after graduation.
If you want to become a global titan of industry, don't spend four years in classrooms primarily studying accounting and management. Pick a place that forces you to gain global literacy, whether through overseas programs, an international student body or courses on other cultures. That school may be ranked lower than others and almost certainly will enroll plenty of students unlike you.
If you're a nerd who has already invented great new apps and wants to be a tech entrepreneur, why spend four years in a school that will teach you skills you either already know or that will be offshored or antiquated by the time you're 30? Better to go where you can take great courses in design, the history of science or anything else that will make you more intellectually nimble.
If you want a career in medicine, you clearly want your school to have a strong pre-med program, but if the faculty members don't welcome undergraduate students to work alongside them in their labs, why go there? Better to select a school that pushes you into courses in medical ethics and cross-cultural communications or has a program that allows you to shadow a working physician or assist medical staff in shelters and clinics.
By the way, we walk this talk. We love the schools we lead, but we don't blindly advise that children of friends come to our respective institutions. It depends on the kid. Sometimes we recommend schools that are ranked higher, sometimes lower.
The schools we recommend depend on the student's needs and passions. Some need the comfort of a close-knit, hands-on environment. Some want to re-create themselves far from people who know them. Some will thrive best in an urban environment; others amid mountains they can climb when they need to burn off steam. For kids who learn as much from coaches as they do from teachers, we propose schools with strong sports programs. For independent learners, we suggest places with a wide choice of electives. We always send those we love to places where they will be forced to grapple with difference.
We are not looking for the most comfortable place for the student, but rather where he or she can thrive intellectually and psychologically. The most important learning might well be uncomfortable learning, where students take courses that terrify them and where they live and work alongside classmates from backgrounds much different from their own.
We recognize it is harder to apply the criteria we have laid out than to adhere to a published list or choose the school where your best friend is going. But in the end, the payoff will be greater. After all, the goal is to develop the skills and the inclination to educate yourself for life.
Barry Glassner is a professor of sociology and president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University in Evanston and Chicago. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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