College as a Verb

A quiet place I loved at my school.

A quiet place I loved at my school.

A wise-beyond-her-years high school junior wrote recently to ask for my perspective on whether liberal arts schools or art colleges were “better” for someone who wants to major in art.  She’s a serious student and a talented, hardworking artist. It has been a joy to work with her in a studio, and I truly want her to find challenge, opportunity, and success on the road ahead.

What I believe is the best answer to this talented junior’s question – for whatever my belief is worth: Base your choices on how prepared and committed you are to taking full advantage of the resources any school can provide. It matters less where you choose to go to college, and much more how much you will shape your own experience while you are there.

I have a handful of recommendation letters to write in the next few weeks. Students have told me in the past that they were coached not to ask me for a letter, because an art teacher’s letter should not matter much for admissions unless you are going to school for art. None of my letters this year are for students who are planning to study art (maybe one, but he’s still undecided). But I’m excited to write these letters for pre-med, political science, communications, and business majors, and I hope my letters “count.” We have rec-letter-level connections because these students have taken full advantage of their experience in high school. Instead of following the crowd, they have sought out resources and ways to be involved. Even their lowly art teacher has fantastic things to write about them. They could attend any college – from the elite to the conservatory to the local – and shape a great experience. They are ready.

But I worry about other students who come home from freshman year at brand-name colleges to tell me about 300-person lecture halls and professors they have never met. That’s when I ask about the academic experience. If I start simply with, “how’s college?” I hear first about the football games, the parties, pledging a frat. The assumption seems to be that following the crowd leads to success. (Or maybe the road to fun matters more.)

Maybe that assumption is correct. I recently read in The New York Times Magazine’s 2015 Education Issue that students who graduate from “top-tier schools,” no matter their majors [no matter how they used the time?], make an average of $20,000 a year more than they would have had they not gone to the school. My students have been invited to an upcoming program that promises to teach them “what it takes to gain admission to the 100 most selective colleges in the country.” It seems that ‘getting in’ is what’s at stake – not how one chooses to use the time once enrolled.

This same article on college tuition roughly categorized colleges into three markets: this “top-tier” of around 200 highly selective schools with national reputations; the “regional powerhouses”; and the less selective, smaller public, community, and private schools that “admit anyone who pays.” An eventual thesis is that college financial aid, academic assistance, and decision-making support need to be more evenly distributed to the middle and lower income classes. I’d jump on that boat. The author made some thoughtful suggestions for change, although I couldn’t detect anything that would close the “top-tier” gap. But maybe I just missed it in my read, as my own education could not be categorized at the “top-tier” level.

(A report from Georgetown University provides a slightly more nuanced look at the relationship between earnings and degrees. Slightly.)

I am not sure exactly where today’s conservatory art schools fit into this model – probably somewhere between tiers 1 and 2. But I can say with confidence that my own college education fell between tiers 2 and 3, probably closer to 3.

One of the reasons I fell in love on my first visit.

One of the reasons I fell in love on my first visit.

I don’t talk about this much at my current school, where students are buzzing right now about early decision deadlines and ticking important-sounding college names off on finger-counts when I ask. My undergraduate alma mater currently has an acceptance rate of 71.9%, according to US News & World Report. I was #3 in my high school class; I “could have done better,” in acceptance-speak, but I’m a proud alum of my college.  I knew it was the right fit when I visited, and I was even more certain when they offered me a scholarship. At my college, I became a leader; I learned to be passionate about learning; I deepened, then dissected and analyzed my faith; I made strong and supportive friendships; I took healthy risks, and had a support system when I failed. Some of my professors remain my advisers and confidantes, nearly 20 years later. Would all this have happened at brand-name-top-tier school? Or, at 18 years of clumsiness and low confidence, would I have followed the crowd through the cracks?

This non-elite sees so many problems and presumptions with using causal statistics like “if you graduate from A, you will make B”– to shape college choice. For one thing, college attendance does not imply graduation: only 59% of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2007 completed the degree at that institution by 2013. Humanize this statistic. Between my classes and extracurriculars, I meet about 100 students each cycle at school. If 41 of them never made it to graduation, this would be sad and very personal.

The statistic also speaks only to enrollment and graduation. What did the student do during 4-6 years of college? Did he learn deeply, identify mentors, challenge his assumptions? Or did he simply have a great time? The idea that it doesn’t matter what he did – only that he graduated – makes me a little ill.  Maybe the statistic does have something to do with income. If so, this is sad, and maybe speaks more to elitism than substance. But I doubt it has much to do with living a self-aware and meaningful life.

Should you go to a conservatory or speciality school? (For art, that’s a MICA or RISD; engineering, science, medicine all have their equivalents.)

Only if you’re excited to take full advantage of every opportunity in classes, seek out professors as critics and mentors, and challenge your ideas about your subject’s place in the world and in your life.

Should you go to a “top-tier” liberal arts college, and study there?

Only if you can’t wait to [repetition for emphasis] take full advantage of every opportunity in classes, seek out professors as critics and mentors, and challenge your ideas about your subject’s place in the world and in your life.

Should you go to a less-selective school to explore your options?

Only if you can’t wait to [even more repetition] take full advantage of every opportunity in every class, seek out professors as critics and mentors, and challenge your ideas about your direction and future.

None of the benefits of college are entitlements. When you visit a school, can you see yourself speaking out in class? Meeting with a professor to talk about ideas?  Feeling challenged and inspired when you’re walking back to your dorm? Wanting to spend all-nighters immersed in books and projects? Identifying a crowd to follow who pushes you to learn deeply?  Does taking ownership of learning (the reason why you’re there) feel like part of the school’s DNA?  More importantly – does it feel like part of your own DNA while you are there?

How little it all matters in the long run.

How little it all matters in the long run.

Find the place where all of this feels like a natural fit. Academics and industry-reviewers might try to attach statistics to the earnings potential of one college over the other, but the fit that is right for you defies the stats. For one student, it’s a brand-name big-ten campus; for another, it’s a specialty or conservatory program; for another, it’s a small school with big opportunities.

And if none of it seems to fit, anywhere, work a little harder on yourself before you make a big, expensive decision. Be ready to shape your own experience. College should be a verb, not a noun.

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2 thoughts on “College as a Verb

  1. Part of the mythology that makes this so hard is the idea that ‘success’ is something measured by your earnings. We are taught to strive for success and the one model we are presented with is extrinsic. The picture you paint a good alternative to that. Education isn’t always simply job training but people training. Too often in schools its easy to lose sight of that…..

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