Monday, August 2, 2010

Choosing the college that's right for you

Today Ashley and I address a topic of unnecessarily overarching importance to many young advice seekers: choosing the Right College For You.

From Annie's Mailbox, May 22, 2007:
Dear Annie: I am 17 years old and going to be a senior in high school in the fall. Pretty soon, I will be making some very important decisions about my future and choosing where I want to go to college. I get nearly straight A's and could probably get into most of the places I plan to apply to. Here's my dilemma:

My boyfriend of almost two years is already in college and wants me to go to the same school he does. His college is an OK school, but nothing spectacular, and I feel I could do a lot better. I looked at several of the colleges near his, but frankly, none of them appeals to me.

I want to be with my boyfriend because we've already been apart for the past year and I miss him. What should I do?
Annie, of course, tells the writer to forget the boyfriend and pursue the very highest level of education possible. And while we understand Annie's point--the relationship is not likely to make it past Thanksgiving of freshman year whether she goes to his school or not, and What College You Went To is forever--we question the givens (i.e., that What College You Went To really matters.)

Ashley: Look, I went to a school to be with my boyfriend, and even though we broke up in the first year, it was still the best choice for me.

Lulu: You met me!

Ashley: Aside from that. Sometimes the worse school is the better choice.

Lulu: You get out of classes what you put into them--whether it's Harvard or Community College of Bumblefuck. You can have a great or a terrible academic experience anywhere.

Ashley: Right, and the instructors at smaller/less prestigious schools are often more engaged than the hardcore academic professors.

Lulu: On the other hand, it seems kind of like she's made up her mind that, for whatever reason, she doesn't want to go to her boyfriend's school, and she just wants validation. After all, she wrote into Annie.

Ashley: Her reasons for not wanting to may go away when it's a difference between "free college education" and "$100k in debt." Look, if you want to study engineering, and you get into MIT, Stanford, or CalTech, you go, no questions asked. But other than that, it just doesn't matter.

Lulu: Right, or RISD for art.

Ashley: Suuure. Art.

Lulu: I think leaving it up to money is honestly the best strategy, because it's emotionally neutral. It's hard to regret saving thousands of dollars. The school doesn't have to be so wonderful that it beats the joy of being near the boyfriend, and the boyfriend doesn't have to be so wonderful he's worth turning down Brown--wherever she ends up, the relationship or the reputation of the school are bonuses, not Reasons She Changed Her Life. She should apply everywhere, and go to whichever school ends up being cheapest.

Ashley: Or whichever one accepts her. "Almost" straight As isn't that great.

Lulu: I hate you.

Parents can also complicate the college choice, and as this letter writer found out in a Dear Abby column of December 13, 2008, advice columnist side with the parents.
DEAR ABBY: I am a senior in high school, and my friends and I are all looking at different colleges. I have one friend whose parents are all about deciding what is right for him and won't let him make the final decision as to where he should go. They believe that choosing a college is all about connections and what careers make the most money.

Shouldn't my friend be able to pursue his dream of becoming a writer and attend the college of his choice? Should his parents be able to make the decision about where he should go?
Lulu: The question is, do the parents have the right to choose the school, if they are the ones paying for it?

Ashley: Yes. Yes they do.

Lulu: Okay, yeah, I mean, it's their money, but don't they have some kind of a responsibility to let the kid start to make his own, adult choices?

Ashley: Not if his adult choice means I'm paying $100k for art history.

Lulu: It's going to be a waste of money anyway if they pack a kid off to LSE if he hates math, you know? You can refuse to pay for Sarah Lawrence, but you can't make him be motivated to become a manager.

Ashley: I'd offer less money for certain majors.

Lulu: So complicated. You'd have to come up with a whole system.

Ashley: I'd do it. $100k for engineering, $20k for English.

Lulu: Yeah, I mean, that's rational. I'm not saying I'm against it. I just think he needs to go to hell his own way.

Ashley: That's your answer to everything, isn't it?

Lulu: It is my generalized parenting philosophy, yes. Didn't you feel bad for those kids in college who were always arguing with their parents about why they didn't want to study finance? Half the time their parents were misinformed about what majors would be useful by the time they graduated, anyway. They can't be micromanaging his adult life.

Ashley: In that case, they shouldn't give him any money.

Lulu: Right, but lots of parents, if they can afford it, want their kids to go to college. I mean, I bet they'd also be pissed if he chose not to go to college because he wouldn't accept money on their terms. I see Abby's point, but if it were the parents writing in, I feel like I'd want to tell them not to intervene in what the kid studies.

Ashley: But they didn't write in.

Lulu: True. I still don't think the parents are right, but in the end, it really doesn't matter. You can't make people give you money when they don't want to.

Ashley: I don't think the parents are right, but I don't think expecting them to pay in the first place is a good idea. It's great if they do, but it's your life.

Lulu: Right. Whether or not the parents are right is ultimately academic. Even if they were denying you something you really believed was your right--food or going to high school or something--the best thing to do isn't to whine that it's unfair, but to say "fuck em" and find some way to do without them.

Ashley: You can really see paying $100k for your kid to get an English degree?

Lulu: Oh hell no. My kids are getting scholarships or going to state.

Ashley: $100k is what state costs, these days.

Lulu: My kids are getting scholarships or apprenticing with a plumber.

Ashley: Oh, a plumber? What on eaaaaaaarth is that?

College is great, but if what you want out of college (as most people do) is to learn some things and meet some people, then you can be happy anywhere there's students and teachers together in one place. Most high school students are unsure about what they want to ultimately study, so the only rational way to make the decision is based on (a) what you can best afford, taking into account scholarships and parents' willingness to pay, and (b) "irrational" reasons, such as the location of your boyfriend/friends/favorite city/favorite climate/where your whimsy takes you. So don't stress out: wherever you go, there you are.


  1. I feel I got a lot out of going to Hampshire College, a liberal arts college that is radically liberal and lets you define your education and gives exciting narrative evaluations, than I would have, say, going to RIC or URI (state schools) or Providence College (which would have been free if I stayed at home).

    In fact, I almost can't imagine going to RIC or URI or Providence College! The student base would be radically different, the school would have been a lot more impersonal, I would have had to take a bunch of required classes that I don't think I would have enjoyed, and I bet the classes would have been less engaging as a whole.

    Would it have been a complete waste of time? Probably not; I'm sure I could have salvaged a decent education and some good friendships. However, I think my education and social life would have suffered.

    Colleges definitely aren't a cookie cutter situation; I know a lot of people who have gone to colleges that turned out to be bad fits. Then they went to better colleges and they were better fits! Now obviously that means we aren't infallible when picking colleges (or anything), but it seems to be we should try our best to give ourselves the most decent chance of a good education and social experience. After all, we spend 4 years in the place; it better not suck!

    As for the money, yes it sucks to have to pay student loans for the rest of your life. But I guess I'm a bit of an elitist intellectual bullheaded socialist in that regard. I think good education should be free or nearly free. But since it's not, I'd prefer to plow ahead like it is and seek a great education anyway. Now there's definitely some privilege entering into this; I wouldn't advocate someone seek a better college when they literally couldn't afford it or when doing so places significant financial hardship on their parents or themselves. My situation is that I took out a bunch of loans and so did my mother, and now we're paying them off pretty reasonably without significant hardship. But I will be paying a couple hundred dollars a month for a long time, and I could probably have mitigated that somewhat by going to a state school or Providence College and living at home or something.

  2. Me, I'm glad I didn't go to Hampshire, so I see your point. We were simplistic about the possible reasons to choose one college over another, and if there is a college you really prefer for whatever reason, then sure, the money could be worth it. I still think there is a general overemphasis on CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLLEGE as if everyone has one, similar to the fiction that everyone has a talent or soulmate.