Thursday, March 22, 2012

How not to choose a college: don't ask Aunt Rose

WhenI was 16 my Aunt Rose helped me decide on what college to attend. This was abit odd since I had no reason to believe that Aunt Rose (who was a substituteteacher in an elementary school) knew anything about colleges. But when shetold me that Carnegie Tech was a very good school, I took it seriously.
Ichose which schools to apply to by deciding that since I was good at math, Ishould be a math major and that since I liked real things, I should study mathin an engineering school. I got a list of engineering schools and picked a fewand applied. I got into them all so I needed to choose one. Aunt Rose cast thedeciding vote.
Ihad visited most of them with my parents the previous summer and was impressedthat the computer at Carnegie Tech was very big.
Whatset me off thinking about this was a sign I passed while in a taxi yesterday inNew York. It was billboard for St Joseph’s College, a school I have certainlynever heard of, and it advertised that it was the “most affordable top-tiercollege in Brooklyn and Long Island.”
Ididn’t know there were any top tier colleges in Brooklyn or Long Island andhave no idea which is the most affordable. But I couldn’t help but think aboutthe unfortunate students who might take this billboard seriously. They wouldhave been better off with Aunt Rose.

What does it mean to be a top tier college I (or a very good school)? What isSt Joseph’s in the top tier of? Unfortunately for American students, mostpeople’s answer to that relies on US News and World Report, a magazine thatranks hundreds of colleges on the basis of average SAT scores and average classsize and a range of other variables that tell one very little about the qualityof the school.
Insome sense these rankings do a terrible disservice to the colleges they rankbecause they make them obsess about the variables tracked by the US News ratherthan obsessing about real quality. Still they manage to get Harvard and Yaleand MIT at the top of the rankings and that probably isn’t all that wrong.
Professorsrank schools (not explicitly) by asking if they or their colleagues wouldrather be there than where they are. There is much agreement amongst them. Itis analogous to asking if a minor league baseball player would like to join theYankees. He would. And similarly, a professor at the University of Illinoiswould prefer to be at Harvard. Butactually, that might not be true. There are departments at Illinois that arebetter than their counterparts at Harvard and there are probably plenty ofprofessors there who would not accept an offer at Harvard.
Butwhen it comes to that top tier college called St Joseph’s, not so much.Although I know nothing about this school, it is safe to assume that the entirefaculty would leave for Harvard in a New York minute.
Whyam I writing all this?
Becausewhen I was 16 I made a major decision in my life with no knowledge, no reallyuseful advice, and I suffered for it. I had no business being a math major. Itwas not important that I attend an engineering school, and Carnegie Tech wasnot that great an experience for me. What was good about my decision was thatCarnegie Tech had a large and first rate Artificial Intelligence faculty andthat that attracted my attention and altered my career choices in a verypositive way.
Thiswas all random of course. Apart from having seen a big computer there, I had noidea that this piece of serendipity would matter to me. In other words, I waslucky. Aunt Rose happened to be right, although she didn’t know why, becauseCarnegie Tech wasn’t a great place to study anthropology or linguistics forexample, which became two of my interests.
Advisingstudents that they must go to college, as is the rule these days, and advisingthem where to go via billboards or their Aunt Rose is simply absurd.
Theseare important life choices and ranking in a magazine or nonsense about beingtop-tier should not be deciding factors.
Weneed to start helping students make sensible choices about whether they shouldgo college at all (my advice, take a few years off after high school, olderstudents do better in college because they know what they want.) And, we needto help them find out who they are, whether college is for them, and what theywould do when they get there. Colleges are very bad at helping with this. Changingthe high school curriculum to something more diverse that is less about testscores and grades would help a lot in this regard.