How to Choose a College

Dear Prospective College Student,

I frequently get asked for advice about going to college.

This is partly because I helped my nine younger siblings through the college process, from application to graduation, but also because I’ve spent much of my own life in various colleges and universities, either as a student (I have a B.A., M.A., and a Ph.D.), a teacher, or as a “residential life” administrator. So I know the university from the inside. 

If you’re the person I’m thinking of, you’re intelligent, industrious, genuinely interested in learning, and not in immediate need of a trade with which to support yourself: in short, you’re an ideal candidate for college. You’ve already visited a number of top schools, and, given your educational and economic background, you’re likely to have a choice of several well-regarded institutions.

It’s an exciting time of life—you’re about to head out on your own, to a world of adventurous independence, learning, and, later, employment. 

But first, you need to choose a college. It’s the biggest decision you’ve ever made, and among the most consequential decisions you will ever make. So how do you choose a college?

Well, first some bad news: a college degree is not a guarantee either of an education or a job. In the United States right now, about half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Think about that.

A prominent venture capitalist told me recently that of the dozens of Ivy-league graduates he had hired over the past twenty years, he judged only about half of them to be competent to complete simple tasks, like conducting Internet research, or composing a well-written and proofread e-mail. He’s not alone: American businesses are spending billions of dollars per year on remedial learning for their employees.

And so, despite what the glossy brochures and gorgeous websites and campus tours will tell you, there’s a very high risk that you won’t get much in return for your investment of four years of your life and a huge sum of money.

How can you prevent throwing away all that time and money? How can you tell in advance that you’re really going to get an education? 

The first thing to notice about a college is how it markets itself.  

I recently came across a billboard for a large public university, which depicted a shorts-and-t-shirt-attired young man, carrying a surfboard that was emblazoned with the university’s initials; the caption read, “Learn where the living is easy.”

Then, a few weeks later, on a tour for prospective students at an Ivy League university near New York, I was shown a Glee-inspired music video that featured residence rooms and social life but made no mention of classes or academics. It might as well have been describing a cruise vacation. Similarly, some colleges offer “pet-friendly dormitories” or “apartment-style” accommodation.

If you find such marketing campaigns attractive, you might ask yourself what you’re looking for, because it certainly isn’t an education.

Still, many universities and liberal arts colleges are smart enough in their marketing to show you photos of beautiful books, bright classrooms, and smiling students, while they mention phrases like “liberal arts education” and “critical thinking.” But would you make a quarter of a million dollar investment in a business on the basis of its marketing materials alone? I doubt it, and likewise you’re going to want to dig deeper than what a college says about itself to figure out what you’re actually going to get if you enroll there.

But how can you dig deeper? It may come as a surprise to you, but the biggest single test of whether a college is worth attending is not its ranking, its placement record, or the average salary of its graduates.

It’s whether it treats you like an adult. Don’t expect a college to help you become an intelligent adult and a responsible citizen if it does not treat you like one.

Many colleges and universities will not treat you like an adult—someone who can think and act independently—but instead they will treat you like a child in need of sermonizing and supervision while they severely restrict what you are allowed to say and think.

To begin with, if a college is not unambiguously committed to freedom of thought, and its counterpart, freedom of speech, how can you possibly expect to learn how to think critically—to examine opposing positions and analyze the merits and deficiencies of each?

It is the nature of thought itself that it cannot be subordinated in advance to any ideological position. The human faculty of reason is unfettered by allegiance to anything but the truth itself.

Accordingly, the mark of a true university is intellectual diversity—and yet most universities are remarkable for mind-numbing conformity, for a student body that looks diverse but all believes the same things, where dissenting voices are marginalized or ridiculed.

How are you going to learn to think if your university is opposed to thinking? 

Think about that.

One good way to get a sense of a college’s commitment to freedom of speech is to check its rating on this website,  which will give you detailed reasons for each “speech code rating” it assigns.

You can also tell a lot about a college by the courses it offers. Avoid colleges whose courses don’t have students engage with original sources. Would you be reading Plato, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen, or merely reading what other people have said about them? You want to encounter the books and ideas that change lives directly, not through a pre-packaged conclusion.

If you’re not sure what a course is about or what it would entail, then write to the professor and politely request a syllabus. This kind of research is part of taking adult responsibility for the decision you’re about to make.

After your Internet research, you’ll need to get off the computer and “test-drive” the college in person. There’s no better way to see what you’re really going to get than going to campus and sitting in on classes with several different professors.

How big are the classes? What’s the atmosphere like? Does it seem that students are really thinking and learning? Or are the students slumped in their chairs, surfing the net and texting? Above all, does being in the classroom make you excited to come back for more? If not, don’t go back! There’s no reason to think you’ll like it better once you’ve paid your tuition—and don’t even consider going to a college if you haven’t sat in on several classes.

Next, what do you think of the students you meet? Do they seem to have some intangible freedom that you want to share? Are they caught up in the exhilaration of discovery, debate, and independence? Or do they seem pretty much like your friends in high school, only with more experience partying?  

And that brings me to the best way to discern whether a college is worth your investment. Ask yourself the following question: does this feel like high school? The more different from high school a college feels, the less likely it is to police and patronize you, and the more likely it is to treat you like an adult and offer you a real education.

Well, what is a real education?

A real education will give you transferable skills of learning, analysis, and seeking the heart of things. 

A real education exposes you to the eternal realities of truth, goodness, and beauty, and will do this primarily through the history of art, literature, and science, the daring investigation of which will lead you to lifelong friendships and happiness. 

A real education will treat you like a person of spirit, intelligence, and personality. 

A real education will awaken something inside you, and that something is your freedom.

Don’t settle for anything less.