How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge starting today for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.


In College, Choose to Thrive

I originally wrote this op-ed for the McClatchy-Tribune, and it has appeared in various newspapers over the last week. I then read Arianna Huffington’s new book, “Thrive,” which argues for a different “metric of success” — something harder to quantify than traditional measures, but potentially much more fulfilling. Might there also be such metrics that would help one match up well with the college at which one would receive an education that would lead to lifelong learning? The idea of lifelong learning is at the core of my new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which Yale University Press is bringing out in a few weeks.  I’ve posted this on the HuffPost site, and it seems appropriate to re-post here the week of WesFest.

Many of us were delighted by high school senior Kwasi Enin, who made the news recently when he was admitted to all eight Ivy League universities. He announced, with a great grin, that he would revisit the schools to find the best fit given his interests in music and medicine. He also wanted to compare their financial aid packages.

Kwasi’s success story is a rarity, but his response is not. After the thick envelopes arrive at home (or, after you click on the happy web link that announces your acceptance), students have about a month to really think about what kind of school would help them grow as a person, what kind of school would best prepare them for the future, and at which school would they be happiest. And they also have to think about whether they can afford the school of their choice.

The Ivies, and most of the country’s highly selective universities, promise to “meet full need” if you are accepted. That means that the colleges offer robust financial aid programs, and in recent years many have put a cap on required student loans. If household income isn’t high enough to pay the otherwise steep tuition, these schools will waive all or a large part of their bills.

But how does one answer the other questions about which school is the best match? Some young people are attracted to large universities with intense school spirit and a dizzying array of offerings. But apart from the big parties and athletic rivalries, many of these institutions are focused on graduate work and research, with undergraduates being taught mostly by part-time instructors. Others are attracted to smaller, residential schools with discussion-based classes led by scholar-teachers. But some of these institutions will feel too confining or isolated for students who want a high-energy, urban experience.

Many students today seem to think they should pick the university at which they will acquire the credential that will land them the most highly paid job. This is a sad (and ultimately impractical) narrowing of what a college education should provide. Sure, one should leave college with the ability to compete for gainful employment. But that first job should be the worst job you’ll ever have, and your undergraduate years should prepare you for more than just entry into the workforce.

Your college education should prepare you to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one’s university years. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn’t even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction. A strong college education, one infused with liberal learning, helps create what philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “new spaces for diverse possibilities of flourishing.”

Discovering these possibilities for flourishing is the opposite of trying to figure out how to conform to the world as it is. That’s a losing proposition, not least because the world is changing so rapidly; tomorrow it won’t be how it is today. When you flourish, you find ways of shaping change, not just ways of coping with it. Those who get the most out of college are often anti-conformists aiming to find out who they are and what kind of work they will find most meaningful. They are not ready simply to accept someone else’s assignment. Those who get the most out of college expand the horizons in which they can lead a life of meaning and purpose.

These, I realize, may sound like awfully highfalutin’ phrases to someone trying to decide big school or small school … lots of requirements or open curriculum … great campus social life or wonderful experience off-campus. And you do want to be able to compete successfully for that first job.

But your college choice isn’t just about “fit” and “comfort”; it isn’t just about the prestige of the school or the amenities it offers. Your college choice should reflect your aspirations, where you can imagine yourself discovering more about the world and your capacities to interact with it. The college you choose should be a place at which you can thrive, finding out so much more about yourself as you also discover how the world works, how to make meaning from it and how you might contribute to it.

I wish Kwasi well as he returns to visit those lovely campuses. I hope that he, and the many thousands of other students across the country making college decisions this month, will use their imaginations to envision how they might flourish in their college years in ways that will enrich and inform their lives for decades beyond the university.