Former College Dean: What Students Should Look for in a College

Several years ago, picking my middle-school-aged son up from a New Year’s Eve party, I found myself merrily but awkwardly ringing in the new year with acquaintances. One mother, who knew that I was the provost of a liberal arts college, made her way over. Champagne in one hand, she took my arm with the other, and her face turned all business: “How do we get our daughter into an Ivy League school? It’s our dream.”

She didn’t like my answer. 

Bennington College Barn (PilotGirl via Flickr)

Students can get an excellent education at many schools

It was an answer I had already given many times and that I’ve continued to provide: an excellent education can be had at many colleges and universities in the United States, not just those deemed the best. Focusing on admission to a single elite school or a group of elite schools is simply unwise.

Acceptance to one of those schools is extremely unlikely, even for those who meet the objective criteria (with rates averaging in the low single digits), and — worse — the “dream” has little to do with the quality of the education and everything to do with its value as a professional and social exponent. 

As a parent, I understand the self-interest that oxygenates this quest — even for those fully aware of the harmful replication of social and racial structures it ensures. 

As a longtime higher education administrator, I have regular confirmation both of the premium put on where students attend college and of the full range of educational backgrounds of those I most admire inside and outside of the academy, which holds the premium in check.

What students learn is more important than where they learn it

And as an educator, I know with certainty that what we learn and how it changes us matters the most and that the charge of the place where we learn is to create the conditions for inquiry, exchange, challenge, growth, and reflection. And that there is no shortage of schools that fit this bill. There is an abundance of them. 

Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book, Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (Scribner), provides the most unfiltered view we have gotten to date of the college admissions process and confirms broadly what we know about the realities and unfairness of selective admissions (hyper-competition, dominance of the white and affluent, distinct advantages for legacy students and student-athletes). It also encourages students to look beyond these ultra-selective schools and the leg up they undisputedly provide and see the wide swath of very good colleges and universities, where the education may even be better and where the price tag surely will be less, thanks to the free flow of merit-based aid. 

As the world remade by COVID-19 inserts even more uncertainty into the college application and admission processes (such as the waiving of standardized tests) and upends the academic calendar and the residential experience as we know it, equipping families with what they need to identify the markers of a good public or private education has never been more critical.  

Four important factors in choosing a college

What, then, should you be looking for, especially with the significant alterations to modalities of delivery imposed by the pandemic? If this were the question a fellow parent posed, here is how I’d respond:

1. Teaching First

Choose an institution where teaching and learning are the epicenters of the enterprise, where the faculty culture views teaching as a practice equal to professional and scholarly work, one to be developed and maintained. Study after study confirms that the quality of teaching — from primary through higher education — is the single most impactful factor in deep learning. And that inquiry-based, active learning models are the most inclusive and effective, promoting student agency. These models will anchor your student through shifts between in-person and remote learning. Seek them out.

2. Mentorship Matters

Advising is too often relegated to a functional role, even at the very best institutions. Yet as Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs confirm in their 2014 book, How College Works (Harvard), relationships with faculty and staff play a decisive role in student success.

Too often, however, mentorship is a product of generosity or chance. Look for a college where advising is formalized, recognized as an intellectual pursuit akin to teaching, and includes staff.

3. Work as Learning

Opportunities for work experiences are important, and not just as ways of testing career interests and building networks. The learning that happens through work — internships, community service, campus jobs, or outside employment — is as valuable as what you learn in the classroom. Find a college or university where these spheres are intentionally connected and where reflection on work is woven throughout your studies.

4. Demonstrated Commitment to Equity-Minded Practices

Look for a campus where diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism work are expressed through concrete action. Colleges and universities have gotten very good at touting their values. Still, they are less good at systematically reviewing their own practices through a racial equity lens — and adjusting them to remake the stakes of institutional success. A college or university that doesn’t do this doesn’t see the world and isn’t where you want your student to be.

Much attention has been given (rightly) in recent years to educational outcomes to quantify the value of a college degree. Employability and income — the very things elite institutions secure through name and networks — rise, unsurprisingly, to the top, as seen in the Department of Education’s College Scorecard initiative. But what a good education enables, what it teaches us about how to learn, what and who it propels us to become, is much harder to fix, measure, or monetize and so is left (wrongly) outside the frame. 

My advice, then, as we go fully into this year’s admissions cycle, is to choose a college or university that sees education as the personal and social good it is meant to be. We talk a lot about what is broken in higher education in this country. And much is, not the least, the flawed notion of meritocracy Selingo’s book reconfirms. But opportunities for transformative learning nonetheless abound. You should find them.

More to Read:

What Matters Most When Choosing a College

About Isabel Roche

Isabel Roche is on the faculty of Bennington College and previously served as Provost and Dean of the College, from 2010-2019, and as interim president for the 2019-20 academic year. She is a scholar of 19th-Century French literature and a mother of two teenagers. You can find her on LinkedIn

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