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How To Choose the Right College

Much of the discussion for American high school students looking to college focuses on the right fit. It is a prominent theme in the advertising and marketing material produced by the school. For American’s looking for schools, rankings come secondary, as rankings don’t tell the whole story. Parents certainly want their students to attend prestigious and competitive colleges, but with so many colleges across the United States, American students often segment the schools into categories and then focus on finding the best match.

First, it is important to recognize the way American’s refer to the term “college” is very different than in other countries. In the United States, college is a post-secondary institution of higher education. University is defined as the same, but depending on the regulations of the state in which the school is located, the term may have a technical difference. For the most part, universities are bigger than colleges. For the most part, colleges focus on undergraduate education while universities have strong graduate schools along with undergraduate education. Dartmouth, Amherst, Carleton, Pomona and Wellesley all have college in their name and among the most elite institutions in the world. In everyday use, the term “college” is a generic term use for “colleges and universities.” An American would go to college the same way an Australia would go to university.

Categories themselves are not universally recognized or widely understood so let’s look at some background. US News, producer of the most popular ranking of American colleges has divided institutions into multiple categories with the following descriptions:

  • National Universities – offer a full range of undergraduate majors, master’s, and doctoral degrees. These colleges also are committed to producing ground breaking research.
  • National Liberal Arts Colleges – emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study.
  • Regional Universities – offer a full range of undergrad programs and some master’s programs but few doctoral programs.
  • Regional Colleges – focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than half their degrees in liberal arts disciplines.

Beyond this list, there are community colleges and special focus institutions like Art Schools, Engineering Schools, and Medical Schools. One big difference between National and Regional is the geographic diversity of American students at the school. Regional schools have a higher percentage of local students and thus the listings are broken down into geographic regions (North, South, Midwest and West). National colleges and universities draw strongly from all over the country. Many regional institutions are very popular with foreign students.

Going beyond these categories there are other designations put on a school. They are either public or private, the difference being tied to the governance of the school. A unit of government, usually the state, controls public schools. Private schools are independent, regulated by government, but not controlled by them. The quality of an institution cannot be determined by this designation. Public schools will charge a higher tuition for students from outside their area (state). Schools may further define themselves in a category such as Women’s Colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), other categories of minority serving or a philosophy of teaching like Liberal Arts.

Religion plays a big part in the history of nearly every private U.S. college or university as just about every private college in America was founded by a religious organization. As they have grown, many of these institutions have shifted from their original orientation and become welcoming to all students and educators of many subjects and philosophies. There are only a very few private schools that require students to pledge their faith and these are generally referred to as evangelical schools. For most private schools, even those labeled as religious, students are usually required to take a few religion courses and these courses are often more oriented toward history or philosophy as much as religious study (doctrine). Catholic schools are often cited as examples of religious schools and they themselves are categorized by their founding orders: Jesuit, Christian Brothers, LaSallian, Franciscan, etc.

Another way colleges are categorized is by athletics. Athletic competition is an important part of the social fabric of most colleges. Colleges field teams in many sports and the games/matches are popular activities for students to watch and ways schools compete with each other. The colleges are organized into leagues and these leagues are often an easy way to band similar schools together. These leagues are also referred to as conferences. The most widely known sports league is the Ivy League where 8 of the most elite compete. Teams are divided into Division I, II and III, designations that reflect the amount of financial support schools put into athletic scholarships. Division 1 is the most competitive; Division III does not allow scholarships determined by athletic ability alone.

Of the 25 schools with large international student population, nine are in the Big 10 athletic conference, four in the Ivy League and three in the Pac 12 conference. Nineteen of the 25 play Division 1 football, 24 of 25 play Division I basketball. Other well-known Division 1 conferences are the Big 12, Southeast Conference, Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference. For smaller schools, Athletic conferences are still a good place to find similar schools. The Patriot League has American University, Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh – schools that match well academically as well as on the field. The Midwest conference has Beloit, Carroll, Grinnell, Illinois College, Knox, Lake Forest, Lawrence, Monmouth, Ripon and St. Norbert – schools that rival each other academically as well as on the field.

Students, guidebook authors and others will add further labels to schools. Some are very thought provoking like the “Colleges that Change Lives” others verge on being silly like “America’s Top Party Schools.” The 2010 Kaplan Guides introduced new categories like “Most Service-Minded Schools” and “Most Desirable Suburban Schools” and “Best Schools for Future Power Brokers” and “The New Ivies: 25 Hot Schools.”

For the foreign student, this issue of fit is more complicated. You speak a different native language and you come from a different culture so it is natural that you would think that you are not like the others, and you won’t fit, but you really can. The American population comes from all nations and the country takes great pride in its diversity and you should look for schools where you might fit. Step aside from the rankings, take an assessment of your personality and then take a deeper look at schools and the concept of fit. It is likely that the best friends you will make in your life will be found at college, often you will find a spouse in college so you can see how “fit” is personal and is something to consider.

Mark Shay is a business developer with a long history of success helping higher education institutions recruit students. In an illustrative career that has spanned three decades, Shay has served thousands of customers, ranging from individual faculty members and graduate deans, to university presidents and foreign governments. He is well known for balancing the non-commercial spirit of educators with the commercial realities of operating efficiently and effectively using technology to improve results. He founded, and has worked in leadership roles at two universities and IDP Education. He has recently started a consulting practice and is serving as an advisor to AAE. Mark is also the editor of ChinaTrend: Insights into the Higher Education market in China


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