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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.