College searching: what information matters and why

This summer rising seniors and juniors are actively researching colleges in order to plan trips and identify the schools to which they may want to apply. These are indeed important summer activities, and there is no shortage of resources to use – from college guides like Fiske to online search engines and college websites.

But this flood of resources does not tell students why the information they are gathering, matters.  They read about class size and student to faculty ratios, the number of undergraduates and even graduation rates. But none of this means much unless they also know why all those bits and pieces of information may, or may not, matter to them.  Big school or small, open curriculum or core, college or university, residential or commuter – none of these qualities are necessarily good or bad in the abstract.  Their value derives from whatever a particular young person needs in order to thrive at college.

Here are some of the choices students may consider:

  • Big or small: At larger schools class size usually depends on the level of the course, but at smaller colleges most classes are almost inevitably smaller. To one student class size will make no difference at all to the learning experience; to another, it will mean being deprived of focused attention and mentoring support that he or she needs to do well.  For these students, the presence of an honors college may be important to explore.
  • University or college: While most colleges have no graduate school at all, research universities may have as many graduate students as undergraduates.  For some students, access to the greater research resources of a university (resources necessary to train graduate students), will be very appealing.  But yet another may feel that those graduate students siphon off the university’s attention away from undergraduate teaching.
  • Availability of undergraduate research: Research takes place at all colleges and universities, but students should note how accessible research opportunities are to undergraduates.  In some fields of study, doing research beyond what is required in class may be unusual. But if you are excited by the idea of producing knowledge or simply know that research hones skills and adds to a resume, the availability of such opportunities at schools like Harvey Mudd may be reason to choose one institution over another.
  • Study abroad: High school students often make note of study abroad programs, even though many college students will in fact study overseas with programs administered by a school or organization other than their own.  But even though you can still spend a semester in Spain even if your own school does not offer such a program, your college’s commitment (or indifference) to the value of studying abroad may have an impact on how readily it grants you credit for courses taken elsewhere.
  • Curriculum: Even though college is presumably above all an academic experience, many high school students have no idea how a liberal arts college’s curriculum is structured or why they should care.  These curricula do in fact all try to achieve the same thing: a well-rounded education in which a student is exposed to a broad range of ways of thinking.  But they get students there in different ways, and while one applicant may find the shared intellectual conversation of a core curriculum exciting, another may find it restrictive. Similarly, the same open curriculum that some students find liberating may perplex or intimidate others.
  • Range of majors: High school students often understand a liberal arts education as little more than the chance “to study a lot of different stuff,” and may spend more time checking out the school’s mascot or reading about its traditions than they will spend on the school’s list of majors or the websites of specific departments.  This superficial understanding of a liberal arts education is reinforced by an application that may not ask you about your future major and the knowledge that you may change your mind anyway.  But there is a difference between thinking broadly and being intellectually scattered, and if you are interested in studying Classics, Geophysics or anything else, whether or not you change your mind later, you should make sure your college offers you the chance to explore that field!

 

These days everyone in college admissions talks about the idea of a good “fit.” But whether one is buying a suit or choosing a college, fit is about individual measurement and taste, and students should examine the information they gather about each school through a lens of self-awareness and personal reflection.

 

History as a college major?

Recently the History Department at Rice University offered a class on “Methods and Theory in History,” aimed at introducing history majors to the demands of upper division seminars and honors theses. But the class also presented history majors with a panel discussion on life after college with a history degree, in which four current students and recent alumni spoke about the trajectory of their own careers and intellectual development with a history degree.  As it happens, my son, a recent Rice history graduate now making his way in Houston’s natural gas sector, was one.

 

Concern with the usefulness of a history degree has been a long time coming, and occupies the mind of high school seniors and their parents as they look towards college.  Families fret about new economic realities, including unemployment amongst recent graduates and huge student debts. Traditionally many viewed a history degree as a common avenue into law school, but now law schools are shrinking in the face of declining demand. New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, in a piece entitled The Imperiled Promise of College, recently highlighted these concerns.  Bruni pointed out that according to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary.

 

No wonder then that many students feel compelled to set aside their love of history and consider more practical fields as they look towards college – Stanford, with one of the top departments in the country, now only graduates about 70 history majors a year, and at Yale where history has historically been one of the most popular majors, the number of history degrees granted fell from 217 to 131 in the last ten years.

 

Bruni is indeed right in cautioning students that hard economic times require them to be thoughtful, flexible and proactive as they think about their education. But students who love history and would like to study it in college, should not despair either!  If the problem with a history degree is that it does not come with a technical expertise that will ensure a job – like a degree in engineering or nursing may – that flexibility is also an asset.  As that panel at Rice confirmed, countless history majors are still leaving college to find interesting, productive and steady careers in an astonishing diversity of careers, as they always have: in politics and law, entertainment and news (Edward Norton, Steve Carrell, Sacha Baron Cohen), writing (Malcolm Gladwell) and business (Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook).

 

This is surprising only to those who remember history as the mindless memorization inflicted by Mrs. Smith on their fifth grade class.  In college, history students learn to gather, analyze and interpret conflicting evidence.  They construct arguments that fit the evidence, study change over time, and learn to communicate all of that with good writing. There are few profession in which demand for these skills – research, critical and constructive analysis, and the ability to communicate well – is not at a premium. In fact, William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argues that narrow pre-professional programs, ” do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.”  An undergraduate degree in history, on the other hand, will give students, whatever their future careers, exactly that kind of flexibility and critical judgment.  Look at the list that the recent SUES committee on undergraduate education at Stanford identified as important skills that Stanford students ought to gain during their time on the Farm: “the capacity to communicate, critical thinking, aesthetic and interpretive judgment; formal and quantitative reason­ing skills; an ability to think historically; facility in both sci­entific and social scientific analysis, including the abilities to formulate and test hypotheses, assess data, and weigh competing theories; and, last but not least, a rich capacity for creative expression, in whatever domain or field.”

 

Why do we still need students to study history?  According to the American Historical Association, it is how we “gain access to the laboratory of human experience.”  Whether a student wants to become a businessman who needs to understand China’s position on international trade, a teacher in high school, a researcher for a think tank on social policy, a government employee or an online journalist, studying history will impart useful knowledge and strong analytical and communication skills.  And in a rapidly changing world, the study of history will above all give students the flexibility and adaptability to keep up the pace.

Education for Business

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed was headlined “Freshmen Abandon Business.” The article noted that the percentage of freshmen intending to study business at American universities – 14.4 percent in 2009 – was at its lowest since the 1970’s. Yet with twenty-two percent of undergraduates actually concentrating in it, business is the largest major by far – by comparison, only two percent major in history. (As Louis Menand reminds us in his book The Marketplace of Ideas, while economics falls under the liberal arts, pre-professional business studies do not.)
There are many reasons why business remains as popular as it has. Today some two thirds of students put financial gain at the top of their career considerations, and business studies still seem the pathway to that. Students are surrounded by business every day –shopping for clothes, buying food, and filling up their cars. In middle school they do Business America programs and in high school they join FBLA. No wonder many come to believe President Calvin Coolidge’s maxim that “America’s business is business.” And that is fine, if it is what stirs a student’s enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, many high school students still believe that to do business, they have to study business as undergraduates. This has long not been the case. Sometimes the training a prospective businessperson may need most is the ability to generate a creative idea, reflect critically on its viability, and then communicate it effectively to others. And a degree in English or history, for example, where there is a premium on writing skills and where students are taught to construct analyses and arguments, may do that job the best. Business is also becoming more specialized and globalized. These days, trading in the markets of Shanghai, taking up the cause of health care in America, or producing green energy, require backgrounds in fields as diverse as environmental science, biochemistry, political studies, or engineering. So the academic pathways to a lucrative career in the field of business are boundless. As the application to Stanford’s business school points out, their MBA students have majored in everything from economics to religious studies: “There is no “ideal” undergraduate major for business school; therefore, choose a major that you find interesting and engaging.”

Along the road to college admission…

Watch where you’re going!

The college application process can have many unfortunate effects, and one happens when students run around madly padding their resumes with yet one more activity, one more shot at leadership, one more service moment.  The problem is not only that this kind of scattershot business does little to enhance their applications, but also that they seldom stop to ask the important questions: why am I doing this, what does it all mean, where is it taking me?

Watching this mad runaround brings to mind one of my most favorite college presentations, done by an esteemed colleague and good friend at Brown University.  She reminded prospective students that the journey matters, not just the arrival; that as a high school student moves towards college and the next phase in his or her life, thinking and engaging and playing around with ideas along the way is as important as ultimately getting accepted.  Being a classicist, she pointed out that even as we cheer for Odysseus to find his way home to Ithaca (not only those dreaming of Cornell!), we should remember the wondrous things he saw along the way. So she handed prospective students a copy of the beautiful poem Ithaca, by the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1911).  It is worth repeating here:

Ithaca


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

pray that the road is long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:

You will never find such as these on your path,

if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine

emotion touches your spirit and your body.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,

if you do not carry them within your soul,

if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.

That the summer mornings are many, when,

with such pleasure, with such joy

you will enter ports seen for the first time;

stop at Phoenician markets,

and purchase fine merchandise,

mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

and sensual perfumes of all kinds,

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

visit many Egyptian cities,

to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

But do not hurry the voyage at all.

It is better to let it last for many years;

and to anchor at the island when you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would have never set out on the road.

She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.

Wise as you have become, with so much experience,

you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

Some Interesting College Application Stats

The Common Application posted an announcement to all college admissions counselors today with some statistics about this year’s application season.

Currently, there are 788,241 students who are registered to submit Common Applications – an increase of 15% over last year.

Together, they submitted 1,736,287 applications – an increase of 19% — and they expect to process about 1.9 million applications before the season ends, July 15th.

Teachers submitted 1,211,709 recommendations – an increase of 112%!

From the January edition of College Bound comes this information regarding the application pools at a few of the colleges:

Harvard’s applications are up 5%

Dartmouth’s applications are up 4%

Brown saw an increase from 24,000 to 28,000 this year

But the amazing statistic is U. Chicago . .  . up 42%!!!!  (Their admissions staff must be going wild)

The University of California system is up 6%

Despite the economy, nationwide, 49% of colleges attracted more applicants in 2009 than they did in 2008

A few really excellent colleges dropped in applicants, however, including Brandeis, Bucknell, Colgate, Dickinson, Elon, Harvey Mudd, Middlebury, St. Lawrence, Valparaiso.

57% of colleges accepted more students in 2009 than in 2008 (trying to avoid a drop in enrollment based on the economic crisis), and some had a higher enrollment than they were prepared for, meaning crowded dorms and classes .  .  .  don’t expect they will keep the high acceptance rates this year!

Liberal Arts: What Will They Do For Me?

Your education in the liberal arts

When students apply to American universities, one of the phrases that get tossed around most often is “liberal arts.”  So it is worth pondering exactly what we mean with this – is it a political idea, and what is artsy about it?  What does it say about the kind of courses I will be doing at college?  Will I get a job with it, or have to return home with a fine degree and no job prospects?

No one these days can easily specify exactly what “liberal arts” are, even as it has come to define much about American education.  But the idea itself is a pretty old one and grew out of a classical notion that being educated meant more than being narrowly trained for one career.  Instead, a liberal arts education lies in the difference between learning how to cut out one jigsaw piece, and learning how all those many pieces actually fit together – studying economics rather than how to manage a business, sociology and anthropology about how societies work rather than training to be a social worker, mathematics rather than how to be an accountant.   But the value of liberal arts is not even primarily in teaching you to see the big picture.  Instead, your sense of your world is transformed because once you understand how your set of questions fits into that big picture, you also begin to understand the other ways that those same questions can be asked and answered – historically or mathematically or philosophically, for example.  So liberal arts also expose you to different ways of asking those questions.  Understanding that there are different ways to approach a set of questions also mean developing different tools with which to solve those questions.

But then college ends and you have to go off into the big world where you are expected to get a job and pay the mortgage.  Studying liberal arts is not “time out” from the real world in which you get to play around with some interesting ideas which you then pack away to get on with the job of real life, however.  By teaching you how to ask questions and approach solutions from different angles, the liberal arts actually give you a great foundation for any career.  After all, we live in a world where a global economy calls for workers that can innovate, that can communicate well, that are flexible and adaptive enough to survive technical fields where fixed skills become rapidly obsolete, and who have the broad knowledge to apply synergy towards solutions.   In short, employers increasingly call on workers with the learning skills, creativity and broad mindset that the liberal arts teach students.