Hundreds of thousands of students around the world are feverishly building resumes and sheepishly asking the same question: "Will this school accept me?" The much more important question these students should first ask is, "Will I accept this school?"
The Seller's Market
Each year, US News puts out its list of America's "Best Colleges". The top schools on this list are what I call "The Seller's Market" - these are the hot commodities of the collegiate landscape, and they know it. If you're applying to these schools, that makes you a buyer in this seller's market. That doesn't mean that they're necessarily overpriced compared to other schools. It does, however, mean that you should at least understand how these rankings are determined and whether the school is overvalued for you before you spend every waking hour fighting for a highly coveted spot at Princeton, Duke, U Chicago, et al. When US News ranks nearly 1,500 schools across the country, they consider graduation rates, class sizes, faculty compensation, selectivity, financial aid, alumni giving, and numerous other factors. The one thing, though, they never consider is you.
The #1 university to suit your needs is almost certainly not the same school to best suit even your closest friend or nearest sibling. Chances are, you will have different interests, enroll in different majors, participate in different extracurriculars, excel in different environments, hold different political views, have different religious beliefs, have different financial needs, etc. Your priority, then, should be finding the school that provides the best opportunity for you.
There are a number of factors students and parents should consider as they evaluate colleges, and, for the majority of students, where the college appears in the national rankings list should not be the highest priority. Certainly, the elements that go into the US News rankings are important, but there are several other factors that may well be more relevant:
Students and parents will both likely have strong feelings about the importance of a school's proximity, and students should not discount this as they make their decisions.
For the majority of students, leaving for college means putting more distance between them and their family and friends than ever before, and this may well have a bigger impact than expected. Students, after all, tend to be idealistic and are likely to see college as an exciting adventure, giving little regard to the downsides of leaving home. For some, this is exactly what college will be; for others, though, the new environment will fall well short of expectations.
Over a third of students transfer colleges before earning a degree, and about a quarter of students leave school altogether. There are a variety of reasons students provide for their choices to transfer or leave, but two of the most common reasons are "social circumstances" and "homesickness". Having friends and/or family nearby could have a huge impact on your school life. According to a recent SkyFactor Research study, over 80% of students responded "extremely" or "moderately" when asked whether they miss their family back home. What may surprise many students and parents, though, is that 26% of those students reported that they regretted leaving home to go to school, and 45% said they think about going home all the time.
Further, many students underestimate the psychological challenges they'll face when they leave for college. In 2020, UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute reported that a majority of students (62%) felt depressed in their freshman year, and a disheartening 17% of freshmen identified as having a psychological disorder. When students are far from home, these feeling are often exacerbated and may have a profound impact on a student's overall well-being.
As a college prep consultant in the conservative state of Oklahoma, I often hear concerns from parents who are worried about whether universities are more focused on indoctrination than education. These concerns generally stem from the recognition that the majority of university professors and administrators are left-leaning politically. A lopsided left/right ratio* does not mean that a school is necessarily a bad fit for a right-leaning student; I do not, therefore, advise that students avoid any schools that don't share their political or religious beliefs. I would, however, advise students to be wary of schools that flagrantly denounce the views you hold, discourage debate, and/or limit free expression.
When students are unwilling to challenge or even question ideas, universities cease to be the "institutions of higher learning" most parents envision; instead, classrooms become places of self-censorship where students believe their countervailing ideas will be a liability to their GPAs. As you narrow your college list, consider the school's expressed stance on free expression as well as its track record of censorship.
Certainly no campus is going to advertise itself as a place of indoctrination. The good news, though, for parents and students who want to avoid schools that may incumber countervailing ideas is that most institutions and many professors are open with their views, so you can probably figure out what your experience will be like - it just requires a little research. For example, in 2019, Syracuse deemed the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) “inflammatory” and refused to grant YAF recognition unless it changed its requirement that prospective members support the Sharon Statement, a “seminal document” of the Conservative Movement. In 2020, Fordham University banned a Chinese-American student, Austin Tong, when Tong posted an Instagram image showing himself with his rifle to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. Fordham found that his posts violated its policies on "bias and/or hate crimes" and "threats/intimidation" and barred Tong from campus and all extracurricular activities as a result. Such antagonism toward prevailing conservative/libertarian views will likely create an undesirable environment for students seeking a classically liberal education.
The main thing is that you get to know each school on your list. If a school would disallow YAF (a conservative group with chapters on most major U.S. campuses) or ban a student for a his pro-2nd-Amendment sentiment, students should seek to understand why. If you are uncomfortable with the notion of your university suppressing countervailing speech or curating the information students can hear - even from other students - you will want to do your due diligence before you send applications. Resources like thefire.org can be great tools to help you go into the process with eyes wide open.
You will want to make sure you think not only about what goes on inside the classroom but also about what happens outside the classroom. Many campuses have miles-long lists of student associations, intramural activities, and campus events, while others are much more subdued. Involvement in extracurricular activities is a great way to meet other students and to make campus feel like a home away from home.
Additionally, a school's surroundings could have a profound effect on students. Whether a campus is right in the heart of a metropolis, hundreds of miles from a major city, just off the coast, or nestled in the mountains will certainly contribute to the campus's character. Don't discount what goes on outside the classroom - that is, after all, where you will spend the bulk of your time.
If you are already confident that you know what your major will be, you would be wise to take a deep dive into that particular program at each of the schools you are considering. Look at the profiles for each of the professors within the program; perhaps there is one whom you would be very excited to work with. Note: It will also help you to make a good impression on your essay if you show that you have investigated the school and selected it because of a specific program or professor.
Especially if you hope to enroll in a selective school, it's important to present yourself as a student worth choosing. Be careful, though, that you don't work so hard on becoming selectable that you fail to be selective.
- Randy Biggs
Owner, Heritage College Prep
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