How to choose a college

Ryan Neely, Reporter

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One thing on the minds of many MASH seniors (and, hopefully, non-seniors) is what college they will go to (if any). This is an important decision for high schoolers everywhere as they choose where to live and learn in a very pivotal phase in their lives. Indeed, it can be quite stressful for some. Out of all of the colleges we can go to, how are we supposed to know which is the right one? 

Some use rankings, such as those the one from US News & World report, but these have come under fire over the years for a plethora of reasons. Most importantly, they require you to trust the judgement of the publisher of said ranking to have the exact same priorities as you do, which, given that every student will have different priorities, seems a bit nonsensical. In addition, the colleges that reach the top are often the most selective, creating a situation where people may feel like their dreams are crushed if they can’t make it into any of the colleges with high rankings.

Unfortunately, there is a very widespread notion within our society that getting into a prestigious college is an instant ticket to financial success. One demonstration of why this isn’t true can be found in a 2015 college ranking produced by The Economist which used the criteria of how much students would earn after going that college as opposed to if they attended another one. In it, many relatively unknown or less selective colleges can be found near the top. Still, this is far from the only necessary consideration.

Other ways to separate the wheat from the chaff would include the College Board’s own college search tool, Bigfuture, which allows you to filter colleges by various criteria, and Niche, which is similar, but assigns colleges grades for both their overall quality and various characteristics. The latter can be misleading for the same reasons as college rankings, but it provides some more detailed information that is otherwise a bit hard to come by. Just make sure to read their methodology to understand where their data comes from, as the grades for some categories are derived from some completely unrelated information (such as acceptance rate making up 15% of the “academics” category).

Again, these are all just tools for you to make individual judgments about what you care about. Given that you (most likely) have the luxury of choice in this matter, it would be foolish not to exercise that freedom by informing yourself of the options available.

One student that I’ve spoken to is MASH senior Andrew Waldman, who states:

“I mostly chose a college based off of what atmosphere felt right to me but also gave me the best academic opportunities. Penn State and Virginia Tech in particular I really enjoyed the mix of a large population with plenty of greenery. Both of those places seemed to have an amazing atmosphere for learning as well with having some of the most competitive mechanical engineering programs in the country.”

He keenly observed how those two colleges were quite well known with regard to his major. Indeed, another reason why applying the generic measure of “prestige” to colleges is misguided is that they, in many cases, can be well known for certain fields in particular. This is where simply knowing about the places you want to apply comes in handy.

His concern for the campus environment is also quite important. Obviously the experience of living on Penn State’s main campus will be different from that of, for example, Pitt, since the former is in a rural environment and the latter is in an urban environment. People living in Mechanicsburg likely have little experience with city life. Can they adjust? Certainly, but it’s not for everyone. Similarly, while large colleges offer an opportunity to meet many new people, some may prefer a more tight-knit community found in a smaller one.

This process doesn’t need to be stressful. People are quite intuitive when choosing what feels right for them, so my best advice would be to use tools like BigFuture to narrow your choices, seek out some meaningful information, and ask yourself if you like what you see. Given that there aren’t a whole lot of “bad” choices out of all of them, you’re probably going to basing your decision on some arbitrary personal preferences. But as long as you can get accepted, get a degree (that you can get a job with), and pay the tuition, you being comfortable with your choice is pretty much all that matters.