Choosing a College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell


With all the college guides already loading down the shelves of bookstores, what excuse can there be for publishing yet another one? This guide does not even pretend to compete with, or substitute for, those huge college guides that are chock-full of statistics about hundreds of colleges. Neither does it attempt to match the vignettes of particular colleges and universities found in some other guides. The purpose of this book is to start you out at square one, before you even know what questions to ask, what colleges to read about, or what statistics to look up. Step by step, it builds up your knowledge of what colleges, universities, and engineering schools are all about, how and why they differ-and, most important of all, what those differences mean to you when choosing where to apply. This is a how-to-do-it book, designed to help you find the kind of college that will fit your own particular goals, ability, pocketbook and way of life. It tells you what to look for during a campus visit, how to read a college brochure so as to get what you need to know out of it, regardless of what message the college itself is trying to send, and-at the end of the process-how to evaluate the admissions and financial aid offers that come in, before deciding where you really want to go.

In short, the purpose of this book is to help parents and students sort out some basic and very important questions that they need to do some serious thinking about-and looking into-no matter what college they are considering. Only after these fundamentals are well understood will voluminous statistics or descriptions of particular colleges have a context in which they make sense. Many of these fundamentals are surprising and some are quite disturbing.

Although this book deals in general principles, it also names names and pulls no punches in revealing what some colleges are doing-something that might be very difficult for a guide that has to go back to those same colleges next year to update their statistics. The purpose is not muck-raking sensationalism, however. The purpose is to offer some practical suggestions for students and their parents. The mention of parents is not incidental, nor mere politeness. Too often those advising students see parents as an unfortunate encumbrance to be finessed aside. But if the advice leads to disaster-as happens more than a few times-it will be the parents who will have to pick up the pieces, not the confident counselors. This book hopes to put some backbone into parents who might otherwise be intimidated by "experts."

Parents should never forget that it was the educational "experts" who, with ever larger amounts of money to spend, produced a consistently declining educational product for almost two decades. Beginning in the early 1960s, the test scores of American high school students declined every year from what they were the year before, on into the late 1970s. To make matters worse, grades were going up while results were going down. Parents and the public were deceived, not only by rising grades but also by glowing rhetoric about the benefits of "innovative" education.

The deception did not end there. Once the test score decline became a national scandal, educators claimed that this decline was due to an influx of disadvantaged students whose low scores brought down the average. In reality, however, the test score decline at the top was especially drastic. The number of students scoring 700 or higher on the verbal SAT in 1982 was less than half the number who scored that high in 1972.

On something as important as choosing a college, parents should not defer to, or be intimidated by, educators who have failed so many children in so many ways for so long. Many educators are good at smooth and lofty talk, delivered with airs of certainty and an implication that you must be very backward if you disagree or even question. But parents and students both have too much at stake to allow themselves to be led around by the nose this way. They need to get their own facts. But before that, they need to think through what facts they will need-and why. That is the purpose of this book. Specific colleges are discussed here, not so much to convey information about those particular colleges but to illustrate general principles which might seem purely theoretical and abstract otherwise. If I go into certain differences to consider when choosing between Bennington College and Franklin & Marshall College, for example, the same principles can be useful if you have no intention of applying to either but are choosing between Evergreen State and Occidental, or between Hampshire and Lafayette colleges. If the illustrations happen to include colleges, universities, or engineering schools that you are in fact considering, so much the better. These illustrations may also suggest some institutions you were not familiar with, but which you may find worth exploring further.

The distinctions made between particular colleges, and particular kinds of colleges, are not meant to be rankings in the sense of showing who is in the "top 10" or among the academic elite, the most exclusive, or the like. What you are really looking for is a college that will be best for one individual. If this book helps you to sort out the kinds of things to take into account to find that college for yourself, it will have served its purpose.

[ Table of Contents | Chapter 1]