Choosing a College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter 1: An Important Decision


An Important Decision
Differences in College
Sources of Advice
Tests and Admissions
Personal Factors
Paying for College
Financial Aid
College Jobs


Choosing a college is often the second most important decision in life- exceeded only by the choice of a wife or a husband. In money terms, college can easily be the second largest expenditure in life-exceeded only by the cost of a house. (Some colleges cost more for four years than the average cost of a house in some states.) College is more than a preparation for a career. Often the person who graduates has become a different person from what he or she was as an entering freshman. Moreover, the imprint of a particular college or university can remain for life. Decades later, people may say knowingly, "He was a West Pointer," or "She went to Bennington" or "He is a Chicago economist." Many writers have commented on the fact that Lyndon Johnson's relations with the Kennedys were soured by his awareness that they went to Harvard while he graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. For better or worse, the choice of a college has lifelong implications.


At its best, the right college can open up whole vistas to the mind and be an exhilarating experience, like being born again. Many alumni are grateful for life for what their colleges did for them-and this gratitude translates into billions of dollars in donations annually to provide scholarships and other expenditures necessary to keep these opportunities alive for a new generation.

At its worst, college can be a tiresome chore without meaning-a burden that many cannot endure for four long years. It is not uncommon for a fourth or a half of all students on many campuses to fail to make it through to graduation. That is by no means the worst of it. Psychiatric problems are widespread at some of the most prestigious colleges, sometimes ending in suicide. At Harvard, a thousand students a year seek psychiatric help at the university's Mental Health Service.

When I taught at Cornell University during the 1960s, I was told that they averaged about a suicide a year among the students. Some years later, while teaching at U.C.L.A., I was surprised on my way to the office one morning to see an attractive, well-dressed young lady lying gracefully in the bushes, apparently asleep. Only the presence of policemen nearby alerted me to the grim reality: Less than an hour before, she had jumped from the roof of the building to her death. Somewhere, no doubt, there were parents whose hearts would be broken before nightfall.

In short, the stakes are very high, personally as well as educationally, when choosing a college. The problem is not to find a "good" college or the "best" college. The perfect college for one student can be a disaster for another. A student who would love Reed College would probably be miserable at Brigham Young University, and vice versa (among numerous differences, it is easier to get cocaine at Reed College than it is to get Coca-Cola at BYU). Every significant feature of a college can differ enormously from one institution to another.

Academically, the quality of work that would get you an A at one college would not be good enough to get you a C at another. The average mathematics score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test among students at Harvey Mudd College is greater than the combined math and verbal SAT scores at Cheyney University.

Socially, there are many places like Williams College, Mills College, or the Florida Institute of Technology, where men can spend the night in women's rooms. It is called "24-hour intervisitation" or "intervisitation unlimited," in the jargon with which academics surround plain facts. As one academic administrator at a west coast institution told me privately: "We don't know what goes on in the dormitories and we don't want to know." At the other end of the spectrum, Pepperdine University continues to maintain the kind of strict control over visits by the opposite sex that was widespread a generation ago.

At some colleges, you will see graffiti everywhere. At other colleges, you will see graffiti nowhere-not even in the toilets. Tuition alone costs over $10,000 a year at some colleges, but it is only $300 a year at Cooper Union-a good institution with an outstanding engineering school. Some colleges, such as Bard or Evergreen, are politically left and far left while others, such as Hillsdale or Wabash, are solidly conservative. Whenever people tell you what "everybody" is doing at colleges these days, they are wrong. There are some important general trends-positive and negative-but there is still an enormous range of diversity. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Somewhere, there is at least one place that is good for each individual-and one is enough, but finding it will take some work. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities in the United States, some two-year, some four-year, some with only a few hundred students and others with more than 40,000; some in rural New England or overlooking Malibu Beach, and others in downtown New York, Atlanta, or Chicago.


There are a number of sources of help in sorting through all this, but you also need to keep a skeptical eye on some of those who are helping you. Alumni tend to have an exaggerated notion of how high their Alma Mater rates. Some will look you straight in the eye and tell you that Podunk A&M is just as good as any school in the Ivy League. Some even believe it. High school counselors can sometimes be helpful but they can also lead you straight into a catastrophe. The quality of high school counselors varies as widely as the colleges themselves.

Some counselors present a special problem when they see their role as sidetracking the parents, so that the student can make his or her own decision, under the guidance of the counselor. Parents should not let themselves be intimidated by the counselor's "expertise." If the decision turns out to be wrong for their child-and wrong can include anything from flunking out or getting pregnant to being caught up in the drug culture for life-the counselor will not lose one dime or one hour's sleep. Each parent knows better than anyone else what it will cost to see his or her child ruined.

It is fashionable nowadays for educational "professionals" to look down their noses at those parents who don't go along with the latest fads, as if such parents were bumpkins or Archie Bunkers. But, when you think about it, the negative opinion of shallow people is a very small price to pay to safeguard your child's future. When my daughter's high school counselor wrote me that I would be "kept informed" as to what they were deciding about colleges, I knew it was time to ignore that counselor and seek information elsewhere. There are a number of informative guides on the market which can give you useful information about particular colleges. But, although college guides may not vary as widely as counselors' opinions, they can still vary considerably. For example, according to Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, admission to Whitman College is rated "Very Competitive +" but The ARCO Guide: The Right College, rates Whitman's admissions standards as "Non-competitive." While the Insider's Guide to the Colleges lists the psychology department at Knox College as among that school's best departments, Edward Fiske's Selective Guide to Colleges suggests that psychology is among Knox's worst departments.

However statistical, official, or "scientific" some guides may look, they are still written by human beings. That means that none can be followed blindly and all require further efforts on your part to get more information. The best can only point you in the right general direction. You must investigate further on your own. (Chapters 8-12 of this book suggest how to go about it.)


The most important information of all is information about the particular student, and that cannot be found in any guide. The student's academic level and individual personality are crucial in deciding which kinds of colleges make sense for him or her, and which should be eliminated from consideration at the outset. This elimination process is essential because you cannot read hundreds of institutional descriptions in a huge college guide, much less send away for catalogues and brochures to investigate each one further. Each student's scholastic ability should be tested, preferably before the senior year of high school, to get some idea of what kinds of colleges to be thinking about. More than a million high school seniors annually take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (S.A.T.), the most widely used college entrance examination, and more than three-quarters of a million high school seniors take the American College Testing Program (ACT) examination, which serves the same purpose. These tests are by no means perfect and critics have stirred up a great deal of controversy about their imperfections, both real and imaginary. Yet nothing better has come along.

The test results can be enormously valuable when it comes time to select a dozen or so institutions worth serious investigation. The average verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test has been around 430 points in recent years and the average math score around 470 points, for a total of about 900 points out of a possible 1600. There are many very good colleges whose students' average combined SAT scores total about 1000 and are therefore within the academic range for most high school students who go on to college. Some of the top colleges and universities, however, have students whose combined SAT totals are about 1400, so that schools like these (Yale, Stanford, Cal Tech, M.I.T.) are far too demanding for most students.

A college's average SAT score is a useful rough indication of whether your scores put you in or out of the ball park as far as that school is concerned. If your math and verbal SAT's combined are 100 points below the college's average, that is not out of the ball park. But if they are 200 points below, you are probably pressing your luck. Every college has its anecdotes about students with low scores who did wonderfully. There are also illiterates who became millionaires. But most people go with the percentages, instead of betting their future on a long shot. College is too serious a choice to let other people's anecdotes lead you into a bad gamble. But that doesn't mean that there is no leeway at all in schools you can reasonably apply to.

Colleges and universities themselves allow considerable leeway in admitting students and few have a rigid cutoff according to test scores. At Emory University, for example, the average combined S.A.T. score of the freshman class is 1200 but the range is from 1010 to 1580. At many colleges, your chances of acceptance vary with test scores and class rank, but you do have a chance over a very wide range-and no certainty, even with a top record, at the more selective institutions. Amherst College, for example, admitted 46 percent of those who applied for the class of 1991 with verbal S.A.T. scores of 750 and above, and 14 percent of those who applied with verbal S.A.T.'s in the 500s. Harvard says: "Most of our successful applicants have test scores ranging from 500 to 800 but high test scores are no guarantee of admissions and low scores do not necessarily mean exclusion." That is also true at many other places. Where the admissions pressures are not as extreme, high scores and high class rank create a much higher probability of admissions, but the general principle remains the same-no guarantees that you will be in or out. Duke University accepted 63 percent of those who scored 750 or higher on the verbal S.A.T., Bowdoin College 86 percent, and Davidson College 81 percent. In all three, less than half of those scoring in the 500s on verbal S.A.T. were admitted. Still, in absolute numbers, all three institutions accepted more students in the 500 range than in the 750 and up range. Such patterns are common in a variety of institutions and are found whether you look at verbal S.A.T., math S.A.T., class rank, A.C.T. score or other indicators. Colleges tend to take many things into account beside test scores, grade point averages or class rankings. Some seek social diversity in their students and may accept lower test scores and other credentials from students whose ethnic group is statistically "under-represented." Some schools seek geographic diversity and may admit students from far away with somewhat lower qualifications than they demand from students located within their state or region. Others-especially state colleges and universities-do just the reverse and give preference to those within the state, both in admission standards and tuition charges.

Beyond some point, all this flexibility in admissions standards can be a trap for the student. Colleges serve their own institutional purposes by lowering standards for athletes, ethnic minorities, alumni children, and others, but the students admitted under these lower standards can find themselves in big trouble academically. The cold fact is that test scores and high school grades are correlated with college performance. Freshmen whose past performance falls well below those of their college classmates have less chance of surviving. All the pretty talk in the world about "diversity," or about how we are "not competing," does not change that.

Almost all colleges and universities will accept athletes with lower qualifications than other students-sometimes disgracefully lower. It is common at colleges and universities across the country for athletes to finish four years of school with no degree-not even in the easy subjects that many college athletes major in. It is considered very unusual that athletes at Penn State University generally graduate and that coach Joe Paterno, who insists that his players get an education, still manages to win football games "with real students," as USA Today put it.

Test scores are of course not the only indicator of academic ability. How well you did in high school is probably an even better guide to how well you will do in college. Unfortunately, grading standards vary so much from school to school-especially from a public school in the slums to a private boarding school in the suburbs-that it is more difficult to get a reliable measure of high school performance. Standardized admissions tests like the SAT and the ACT came into general use precisely for this reason.

Academic standards in general, and test scores in particular, are a good way to begin eliminating some of the thousands of colleges and universities that are available, to get down to those worth serious investigation because they are within your academic range. (Virtually all college guides give the average test scores of various colleges.) Other considerations will reduce the number of colleges still further, until finally you have a short enough list to proceed with a closer look at specific schools, including perhaps a visit to the campuses.


The personality, hopes, and style of the individual student are as crucial as academic ability, when trying to match the person with the college. A shy, introverted student can easily get lost for four years on a campus with 30,000 or 40,000 students, sitting in classes so big that the professor knows no one's name and never calls on anyone for give-and-take discussion. The social life of such a person can be virtually non-existent in such a setting or-worse yet-may involve going along with whatever is being done by the group they fall in with, out of fear of loneliness. On the other hand, brash self-starters who know exactly what they want, and insist on getting it, may do all right in this setting-despite the anonymity, indifferent faculty members, and a large, suffocating bureaucracy. Most people are not at these extremes, but it makes an enormous difference where you stand on the spectrum. A small college, with perhaps a thousand or so students, is a much better bet for those who could easily get lost in a crowd or be overwhelmed by a massive bureaucracy to whom they are just a number.

Values and behavior patterns are also important in matching student and college. Not every 18-year-old girl is ready to live in a room with boys' rooms on each side of her, and not every parent thinks it's a good idea. At some colleges, one of the painful situations a girl can experience is having her roommate's boyfriend spend the night in their room.

Co-ed dorms are a fact of life on most campuses, but how people behave in them differs. Whether they are set up with different floors for men and women or in some other way, may also affect that behavior. The attitudes of the other students and of college officials probably matter even more. Despite the popularity of co-ed dorms, some colleges still offer a choice of single-sex or co-ed dorms, and others still stick exclusively to single-sex dorms. If this is an important concern, then it should be added to the list of considerations used to select or eliminate colleges. Given the widespread acceptance of co- ed dorms, this consideration may narrow your list faster than some others. Still, you are looking for only about a half a dozen colleges to apply to and only one to attend. (There are many colleges where most students do not live in coed dorms and a list of 50 of them can be found in Chapter 6.)

Religion is another aspect of values for many people. Some are simply looking for a campus where the religious person finds acceptance rather than condescension or sneers. Others want a college with a positive affirmation of religious values, or perhaps the values of their own particular faith or denomination. Almost all colleges and universities have houses of worship on campus, but they vary in how much they have beyond that. In general, the more stringent your requirements, the narrower your choices. Still, in purely quantitative terms, there are nearly a hundred Baptist colleges, more than a hundred Methodist colleges, and more than two hundred Catholic colleges. Lutherans, Mormons, Presbyterians, Quakers, and others also have their own institutions.

State colleges and universities are of course non-denominational and many of the top private institutions likewise have no special religious character, even when founded by, or nominally affiliated with, a particular church. Brandeis University is Jewish in origin but has large Christian chapels on campus and imposes no religious requirements on anyone. Catholic colleges and universities span a wide range of religious policies, as well as academic quality, with prestigious Georgetown University and high-quality Holy Cross College being among the best academically. Some of the more fundamentalist Protestant denominations have nothing comparable in academic standing to Georgetown or Holy Cross. The Quakers, however, established three of the top- rated colleges in the country in Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr, but here again the church connection imposes no special religious requirements on their students.

Where the religious affiliation does have an important effect on the campus environment, those whose own personal commitments match those of the institution may feel more at home-and those who don't share that commitment may feel more uncomfortable, or even isolated. Nearly 300 colleges have compulsory chapel attendance, for example. Other church-related colleges leave such matters entirely to the individual. But, even where the institution imposes no special rules, the fact that the student body is overwhelmingly of one faith can affect the whole atmosphere for those who share that faith, and for those who don't.

Some students (or their parents) are looking for colleges with structure, rules, and values. They want the faculty and the administration to establish a curriculum with required basic courses, as well as rules of conduct to guide the students' maturation from adolescent to adult. Other students and parents want freedom above all-freedom to take whatever courses arouse the greatest interest and freedom to live whatever lifestyle seems the most fulfilling. There are many colleges catering to both extremes, as well as others in the middle. Brooke Shields, for example, was able to graduate from Princeton without taking a single course in mathematics, history, chemistry, economics, physics, or biology. Some will think that was wonderful; others, that it was terrible. The important thing is for students and parents to think through what they want in this regard, and make that another point on which to select or eliminate colleges.


Financial Aid

One thing that should not automatically eliminate any college is the cost of tuition. Despite the most modest income, or even poverty, it may be possible to attend the most expensive college or university. The top colleges and universities are often the most richly endowed, and can afford to offer the largest amount of financial aid. Harvard, for example, provides financial aid to two-thirds of its students. There were more than 600 scholarships awarded in the Harvard Class of 1990, averaging well over $6,000 a year each. In addition, there are also loans available from the college itself and from the government, totalling more than $7 million a year. As a low-income student myself more than 30 years ago, I went to Harvard because there was simply no place else that I could afford to go full-time.

While not all institutions can match the massive financial aid available at Harvard, many less well-known institutions are able to do quite well in this respect. The Rochester Institute of Technology, Whitworth College, and Willamette University, for example, each averages $5,500 per student annually in financial aid based on need-and each has tuition about half that of Harvard's, so the money goes further. At many state universities, the tuition for state residents is quite low, so that a fairly modest financial aid package will be sufficient for even a poverty-stricken student. At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, 40 percent of the students receive financial aid based on need, and while these average only $3,500 per year, the tuition at Berkeley (for California residents) is only about one- tenth the tuition at Harvard.

At least partial financial aid is widely available, even to students from families whose annual income exceeds $50,000. At many colleges only a small minority of students actually pay the full tuition listed in the catalogue. The larger the tuition, the more likely that is to be so. You certainly don't need to be either poverty- stricken or a genius to get financial aid of some kind. More than 900 colleges, universities, and technical institutes provide financial aid for every freshman who demonstrates any "need" by their criteria.

While most financial aid in recent years has been based on "need" as that is broadly defined by the college, a few institutions are beginning to move back toward scholarships based on scholarship, though still retaining need-based financial aid as well. Among the institutions where non-need- based financial aid averages $5,000 a year or more per recipient are the University of Chicago, Boston University, Tulane, Holy Cross, Northwestern, Mills College, Villanova, Trinity College (Connecticut), and the Polytechnic Institute of New York. Moreover, state universities usually have low enough tuition that smaller scholarships than this will be more than adequate.

Despite all this, it will still require some effort for an average student from an average-income family to finance a good college education. Perhaps the best place to start looking for specific colleges to match both the academic and financial capabilities of such a student would be Edward Fiske's guide, The Best Buys in College Education. Unfortunately, like most college guides, it does not include two-year colleges, which are another option when income and academic records are both limited.

The local reputation of two-year colleges is about all that you can go by, in many cases. It may be worth asking in the admissions office of a reputable state university how easy it is to transfer in from the two-year college you are considering, and how well previous transfer students from there have survived in the more rigorous state university. Even if you don't plan to transfer to that state university, the information can be valuable when choosing among two-year colleges. Some states have formal policies requiring the admission of community college graduates to the state university system. However, that tells you nothing about how many community college graduates do go on, or with what results. But there is a useful list of more than a hundred two-year colleges where more than three-quarters of their graduates go on to four-year colleges in National College Databank, published by Peterson's Guides, Inc.

College Jobs

Whatever the student's academic ability and financial needs, it is usually best to avoid working at a job while going to school, or to minimize the hours if it is unavoidable. A bigger loan is far preferable to more hours of work. College represents an enormous investment of time, money, effort, and emotion. This investment should not be jeopardized for the relatively small sums of money to be earned on a part-time job.

The hours spent on the job are not a real measure of how much it takes away from learning. It is not just the hours, but the fact that these hours are usually fixed, which reduces the effectiveness of study. Some subjects- especially math and the sciences-require sustained, concentrated study for as long as it takes to wrestle with a given problem. If you are two hours into your assignment when time comes to go off to your job, there is no assurance that you can come back three or four hours later and pick it up right where you left off. The mind just doesn't work that way. Moreover, the fatigue factor affects your sharpness, whether you go to work before or in the middle of your studying. You may not feel tired, but losing a little of your edge can be the difference between understanding and not understanding a difficult subject. It would be truly penny-wise and pound-foolish to find yourself gradually forced out of difficult-and rewarding-subjects into something easier, simply because a part-time job left you operating at less than 100 percent.

Because your earning power will almost always be greater after graduating, it will take fewer hours of work to repay a college loan then than it would take to earn the same money while in college. Moreover, the time you spend working after graduation does not hurt your education and the academic record you take to a graduate school or an employer. From every perspective, it makes sense to borrow more money rather than spend more hours on a job while in college. College loans usually are not difficult to repay and are not due until your education is completed, even if that is after graduate school. No one wants to begin a career carrying a burden of debt. But a good academic record is usually worth dollars and cents, whether in terms of starting salary, or in terms of how long it takes to land a good job, or your chances for a graduate fellowship. Even in the first few years after finishing college or graduate school, this can more than offset your payments on a college loan. In the long run, getting the best preparation for a rewarding career and life means far more than the money you earn on a campus job.


People differ not only in their academic abilities, personalities, finances, and values, but also in what they expect from a college. To some, a college means ivy-covered buildings, fraternities, sororities, football, and parties, with academic work almost an after-thought. They will probably have no trouble finding colleges to accommodate them. To others, colleges are places to prepare for a well-paying career, either immediately after graduation or after medical school, law school, or the like. These individuals will have to exercise care in selecting their colleges, for their academic backgrounds can have much to do with their later success in their careers. Finally, there are those for whom college is primarily a place to develop their minds and discover new dimensions of life. These will probably have the hardest task of all in selecting the right institution-and perhaps the most fulfilling rewards when they find it. Scholar and best-selling author Allan Bloom recalled how, as a youngster, "I saw the University of Chicago for the first time and somehow sensed that I had discovered my life." That discovery can take place in many places and in many ways for many people.

Whatever you are seeking in a college, and whatever abilities you bring to it, what is crucial is that you understand what your requirements and capabilities are. There are simply too many colleges, universities, and institutes of technology for intelligent selections to be made without first understanding clearly your own goals and your resources for meeting them. The basic theme of this chapter has been "Know thyself." The theme of the chapters that follow is "Know thy college."

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