Your College Choices

Joan S. Reed

School selection can be an overwhelming task for college-bound high school juniors. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities to choose from in the United States.

Although every educational institution is unique, it is possible to place most colleges and universities into one of several broad categories. A helpful first choice in school selection is to understand what these types of institution are and how good a fit they are for your personal preferences and learning style.

Liberal Arts Colleges – Liberal arts colleges are 4-year institutions committed to providing a broad undergraduate education. Students are required to take a range of courses in the arts, humanities, and sciences outside of their major. Liberal arts colleges tend to be small, with total enrollment of 1,500 to 8,000. A close community is a key element of their educational model and they will cut back on enrollment if they feel the campus population is getting too large. In addition, many liberal arts colleges are located in rural areas, small towns, or suburbs. Carleton, Hamilton, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Amherst, Haverford, Mount Holyoke, Claremont McKenna, Swarthmore, Williams, Smith, Bowdoin, Bates, Reed, Colby, and Middlebury are just a few of the many excellent liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Pluses: Excellent teaching standards. Close contact with faculty who can serve as mentors and/or recommenders for graduate study. Small, close-knit communities.

Minuses: Location may be remote. Limited range of classes and/or majors. Libraries and other resources may be limited. Limited dining and residence choices. Can be expensive.

The Ivy League – Believe it or not, this term is said to have originally been coined to designate a college sports league. Since then, of course, it has passed into popular use as shorthand for a group of some of the oldest and most prestigious educational institutions in the U.S. The 8 Ivy League member schools are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Columbia University, and Cornell. Each of the Ivy League schools is a unique institution with its own institutional culture and distinctive educational experience. Prospective applicants should take care to research each school separately.

Pluses: Excellent education. Prestige. Outstanding facilities and educational support.

Minuses: Highly competitive admissions. Expensive.

Residential Colleges – A residential college is much more than just a university with campus housing. It’s a college where students’ day-to-day living is part of their educational experience. The colleges where students reside organize lectures and other learning experiences in addition to social events. This style of living is meant to provide students with a strong sense of community, a chance to interact with a wide range of other students, and the opportunity to develop close relationships with faculty. Only a small number of U.S. colleges offer a true residential option. They include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Middlebury, the University of Virginia, Rice University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University.

Pluses: A close community that leads to life-long friendships. A stimulating and integrated learning and living environment.

Minuses: Communities may be too close-knit for some tastes. Limited living, dining, and entertainment choices. May be expensive.

Honors Programs – Many large colleges and universities give high-achieving students the option of enrolling in an honors program. Honors students take small, seminar-style classes that are more challenging than regular classes on the same topics are and that give them close contact with faculty. They may be asked to complete a senior thesis or project. At some schools, honors students live in designated housing and have access to special scholarships and internships.

Pluses: Excellent academics. Close contact with professors who can serve as mentors and/or recommenders for graduate study. A chance to produce a thesis or other capstone project. Honors programs at public universities often represent an excellent value for in-state residents.

Minuses: Not really a substitute for a liberal arts college experience, if that’s what you have your heart set on.

Research Universities – These are comprehensive universities where faculty and graduate students focus on original research. The top U.S. research universities draw talent from across the country and around the world. A partial list of top U.S. research universities includes Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, MIT, Johns Hopkins, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, Pennsylvania State University, UCLA, UC – Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the University of Michigan.

Pluses: Excellent academics. Entrée to top graduate programs. Exposure to cutting-edge research. Outstanding libraries, laboratories, and other facilities.

Minuses: Highly competitive admissions. Undergraduates may have more contact with teaching assistants than they do with faculty.

Flagship Universities – A flagship university is the main campus of a state university system. Flagships are comprehensive universities and usually include graduate or professional schools in addition to undergraduate colleges. Flagship universities have competitive admissions and are often listed among the best universities in the country. They include ‘public Ivies’ such as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Pennsylvania State University.

Pluses: Excellent academics. Entrée to top graduate programs. Lively social and sports scenes. A wide range of class choices. Relatively low tuition for state residents.

Minuses: Huge campuses and vast student populations can be easy to get lost in. Main campuses may be located in isolated rural areas. Undergraduates are likely to have more contact with teaching assistants than with faculty. Classes may involve several hundred students and provide little opportunity for discussion or feedback.

Land-Grant Universities – These are large public universities that were originally built on federal land in exchange for a commitment to educate the public. The primary mission of these universities continues to be public education. Undergraduate programs will often be balanced by active graduate, continuing education, outreach, and professional programs.

Pluses: Less competitive admissions and relatively low tuition for state residents.

Minuses: Large campuses and classes. Quality of programs and departments varies.

Music Conservatories and Art Schools – These are specialized academies that train students in the visual and performing arts. Some schools (especially those affiliated with a university or a college consortium) provide the option of a broader liberal arts education in addition to arts training. Others focus exclusively on developing their students’ artistic talents. Most of these schools require an audition or portfolio as part of the admissions process. Top schools include the Julliard School, the Eastman School of Music, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Pratt Institute, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Yale Art School.

Pluses: Outstanding training. Prestige. Specialized career placement and networking opportunities.

Minuses: Highly competitive admissions. Training and/or academic credit may be hard to transfer to other schools or fields.

Community Colleges and Junior Colleges – These are two-year institutions that offer Associate of Arts (A.A.) degrees. Most are non-residential ‘commuter’ schools. Community colleges typically practice open admissions, meaning that anyone who meets their minimum standards is guaranteed enrollment. Many offer smaller classes and a more supportive learning environment than large 4-year institutions do. A growing number of college-bound high school graduates opt to save money by completing 2 years of degree study at a community college and then transferring to a 4-year institution for their junior and senior years.

Pluses: Low-stress admissions. Inexpensive. Teaching and academic support can be very good.

Minuses: Class options and library and lab resources may be limited. Transfers to 4-year institutions may become more difficult as more people choose this option. May not be able to transfer all degree credits to a 4-year institution. Social life and extracurricular activities may be limited.

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