Danville Express

Living - March 30, 2007

The 411: Turn inward before starting college search

by Katharine O'Hara

As a college-bound junior, I find that I am bombarded with the same repeated interrogation wherever I turn - family get-togethers, neighborhood parties, and even the grocery store. I cannot step outside without being asked: Where are you looking to go to college? Close? Far? Big? Small? Public? Private? Religious? Secular? And the list goes on.

With over 2,000 options, the decision of where I will attend college is daunting. As the time draws nearer, it appears imperative that I identify what I truly want out of my college experience and develop some sort of rubric on which to base my choice.

Loren Pope remarks in his book, "Going Beyond the Ivy League," that nearly 70 percent of college students transfer, drop out or flunk out of college, bored, unlearned and thoroughly frustrated with their choice of school. Pope points out the oftentimes fatal mistakes families make when choosing a school, namely, getting caught up in what he refers to as "designer-label college" syndrome.

It seems many college-searching students get caught up in prestigious names and gravitate toward the opinions of friends, family and the media. But to Pope, this simply demonstrates the need of the weak adolescent for approval from peers. "Every year I get clients who went to unsuitable schools because they were the fashion and have flunked out or dropped out after a year or two and have to do the job all over again," he says.

He addresses the example of one school that immediately gained acceptance due to outstanding athletic performance. "When Jacksonville University's basketball team broke into the big time a decade ago, admissions applications soared, but for the student, it was not a whit better than the years before."

Pope explains many students go wrong in their unrelenting desires to attend Ivy League or other big name schools. Though Ivy Leagues provide a strong education, Pope assures that their prestigious names do not work to the advantage of a job applicant five years after graduation. "A person's own qualities will be deciding whether he gets a raise, a promotion, or is courted for another job ... Even if the name on a diploma helped get the first job because it was taken as evidence of intelligence, that would be about the limit of its leverage because most people change jobs at least once in the first five years."

Aside from the Ivies, many are under the impression that large universities offer a more expansive, richer undergraduate experience than a small college, but Pope explains this is often a fallacy.

"The (large) university by its very nature cheats most undergraduates out of essential parts of their educational birthright," he says. "The university is primarily interested in research, publishing, consulting, and graduate teaching. Even some of the greatest universities leave over 70 percent of freshman and sophomore instruction to graduate assistants, or worse, to foreigners who can barely speak English."

Pope recommends that college-searching students first turn inward. They should explore what they hope to gain from their college experience, and instead of asking, "Am I good enough for a college?" they should be asking "Is it good enough for me?" Then Pope recommends students explore smaller, less selective schools that may be better fitted to their learning style, personality and hopes for a college experience. Pope claims there are hundreds of viable options just short of Ivy League status for students with learning disabilities, who are underachievers, or who are simply not in the top bracket of their high school class.

Small college environments allow for greater communication between students and professors, and the ability to spot and resolve problems a student may be having. Students are also able to complete required courses in a four-year span, which often is not possible at a large university. Pope encourages those who go to a big school to enroll in an honors program, residential college, or other small group program within the university, in order to establish a sense of community in a place where anonymity is common ground.

He also remarks that a school's selectivity and quality of experience have no correlation, noting that two of the most intellectually demanding American schools - Reed College in Oregon and St. John's College, with two campuses in Maryland and New Mexico - typically accept 95 percent and at least 85 percent, respectively, of their yearly applicants. Pope quotes members of the Reed faculty who also taught at Ivy League institutions saying at Ivy League schools, students were learning for the sake of grades, while at Reed "they are learning for the sake of learning."

For those embarking on college visits, Pope recommends talking to students and faculty members, attending classes, faculty offices and the campus bookstore, eating lunch in the cafeteria and having an interview with an admissions officer in order to get a feeling for the school. Students should ask questions about classes (lecture or discussion based?), the nature of the students (do they stay after class to discuss or ask questions?) and the student-faculty relationship, class size and campus environment.

In making a decision as life-sculpting as this, it is important students and parents consider all factors for a beneficial college experience, considering schools based on their encouragement of students to think critically, make intellectual connections and espouse a personal system of values. "A college should be judged by the kind of people it turns out rather than by the kind it takes in," says Pope. "The magic is in the moral and intellectual torque the college exerts, not in the name, however hallowed it may be."

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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