Is That a Good School?

On Sunday after lunch, I was watching college football highlights, when the back-and-forth battle in Happy Valley between the University of Illinois and Penn State came on. At the time, my 10-year-old daughter was stretching on the living room floor next to me (something I often see but rarely participate in).  

With her head literally touching the ground next to her foot, she asked, “Penn State? Is that a good school?”  

Without hesitation- “Yes.”  

Now standing with foot pulled behind her and toward her shoulder, “How about the University of Ilinois?” 

“Absolutely.” 

Over the next 15 minutes, we saw about six games recapped. Private colleges, land-grant public schools, military academies, and teams covering every geographic region of the country.   Each time the announcer moved on to a new game’s highlights, Elizabeth, after a few questions about mascots or comments on helmets, would ask the same question, “Is that a good school?” And each time (including one where my wife scrunched her nose and tightly closed her left eye), I’d respond definitively, “Yes!”  Ole Miss? Brown? University of New Mexico? Gonzaga? 

Yes is both accurate and appropriate to tell a double-jointed, 10-year-old who is too busy touching the bottom of her foot to the back of her head (what?!) to listen much beyond that anyway… but it is not a satisfactory or complete answer for you 

Is that a good school?  

Whether you are a parent, counselor, high school student, or an adult supporting a student, this is likely a question you’ve either heard or asked recently.    

While the question is simple, it is no longer acceptable to settle for simple answers (or make telling facial expressions) like “No,” “Yes,” “It’s ok,” “It didn’t used to be,” or “it is ranked X (variable not Roman numeral 10),” because doing so absolutely ruins the opportunity to learn, research, grow, continue the conversation, and promote exploration.  

Instead, the answer to, “Is that a good school?” is not an answer at all, but instead an invitation to ask many questions in return.  

Adult Warning: Asking a high school student, particularly one who is hungry, to pause, reflect, and ask some deep and weighty questions may initially be met with grimaces, grunts, or departures from the room.   

Student Warning: Not accepting one-word summaries of colleges or reducing schools to numerical rankings or admit rates will lead to a deeper understanding of yourself. Small print: People bold and thoughtful enough to take this route have experienced clarification of their goals, an underscoring of their values, and an enhanced sense of control, excitement, and purpose. Do not take this path if you are more concerned with the opinions of others than your authentic self, are scared to diverge from the status quo.  

 Is it good school… for you? 

Adding these two words changes everything. First, it invites the ever-important question, “Why do you want to go to college?” Too few students take the time to actually consider and write down at least a two-sentence answer to this question, but it is imperative to do so. Don’t skip this step. Crawl before you walk. Here are a few prompts to get you started.  

  • Who do I hope to meet, connect with, and learn from in college? 
  • What opportunities do I want this experience to provide in the future? 
  • What type of people and learning environments bring out my best? 
  • What do you want the time and space to do, discuss, explore? 

Defining why, and making decisions to surround it will quickly lead to other big questions, but let’s take it slowly. 

Once you have your why written, revised, and clear, take some time to list the aspects of a college that are necessities, desires, and bonuses, or as you can see in the grid below, your: needs, wants, and would- be- nices.  

NEEDS WANTS WOULD BE NICE

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is that a good school… for ME?  

Do you want to be able to get home quickly to celebrate holidays and birthdays, or access health care and other services?  

Do you know you would flourish by going to college with a few people you know from home? And conversely, when you are honest, do you know the best thing to do is break away from certain people or the image/reputation you have had in high school? 

Are you going to have to take loans beyond what you and your family are comfortable with? 

Asking the question this way, and checking it through your filters of WHY, as well as your Needs, Wants, Would-Be-Nices grid provides a valuable litmus test. And this is not just valuable for considering where you might visit or apply, but it will be essential to re-visit once you have been admitted and are weighing your options as a senior in the spring.  

Well, I see you listed “cold weather” and “mountains” in your want column. That place is known for heat and humidity, and most folks would not define 806 feet above sea level as a “mountain.” So, are those aspects really wants or are they needs? 

Is that a good school for me? You listed small, discussion-based classes as important. Let’s research if that is the norm there, specifically in the majors you are considering.  

Adding two additional words helps get past rankings. If you are someone who struggles with Seasonal Affect Disorder and would not be emotionally or mentally healthy when it gets dark around 4 p.m. for several months, then regardless of the world-class faculty, impressive list of alumni, and the fact that you look good in their colors, the clear answer is NO- that school is not good for you.  

Is that a GOOD school? 

I find it surprising and disconcerting that on average people talk about restaurants with more nuance than they do colleges.   

“Is that a good restaurant?” is almost never met with a simple Yes/No. Instead, people are far more apt to make statements like, “Well, their pizza is great, but I am not a big fan of their burgers.” OR “If you are in a hurry and don’t want to spend much, it’s a good spot. But don’t expect a five-course experience.” OR “It didn’t used to be, but they’re under new management now and things have changed.” I’m sure you can add a few others to this list. “Good” for certain things. “Good” at a certain price. “Good” depending on what you are looking for.  

As an aspiring college student, you should start acting like one when you seek to answer this question.   

Research: Check out the programs certain colleges are known for, rather than simply their overall ranking or historical stereotype.  

Explore: Look into the faculty who are teaching in the majors you are interested in studying. What are they curious about and researching currently? What have they published, and which companies/board/organizations do they consult with or advise? 

Run the Numbers: Plug in your family’s financial data to an online calculator to understand likely costs and gauge affordability. What is the likelihood you would need to take loans to attend a particular college? Check out their financial aid site to understand how students off-set costs, juggle jobs and school, and so on. 

Network: Who has graduated from that institution and what are they doing now? Don’t just Google famous alumni, but also read their online alumni magazine and look at profiles and the opportunities graduates are receiving.  

Value Your Values: Read their mission and vision statement or even their strategic plan (executive summary is fine). Does it resonate? Does what you fine align with who you are and what you want to be a part of? Ultimately, Do YOU CARE?  

Culture Check: Read the online student newspaper to understand what current students are excited about, mad about, pushing to change, or snarky about in general. Check out the social media accounts of clubs, academic majors, and others on campus. While it’s fine to look at the admission or main handle for the university, your goal is to get the unvarnished look at what’s really happening at each place you consider.  

Is that a good school? Is that a good school for you? Is that a GOOD school? 

My sincere hope is going forward you wont allow yourself or anyone around you to answer this question with one number, one word, or one facial expression. Are we good? GOOD! 

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college