This past weekend, St. Olaf’s campus overflowed with excited high school students visiting for the first of two Admitted Student Days. Herds of potential customers descended Friday night through Saturday afternoon, crowding the Caf (to nobody’s frustration), gazing incredulously at our Hogwarts aesthetic and spurring Friday-night party-goers to temper their merriment. If I sound cynical about this whole enterprise, it’s because I am. No, I wasn’t burned with two prospies and a sober Friday night. Rather, I’ve come to realize that the existence and necessity of “Admitted Student Days” is indicative of a larger problem with American attitudes towards choosing a college, namely the incessant agonizing over a decision that often plagues the academically-inclined.
In my experience, there are only three main features of a college that determine if it’s the right choice: appropriate academic opportunities, an atmosphere aligned with your interests and values, and financial feasibility. The first feature is pretty straightforward: make sure the colleges you’re looking at excel in the areas of study you’re interested in, offer your potential majors and have a student body conducive to your academic ambitions. In other words, if you’re an engineering major, it’s probably better to go to a state school with a well-regarded engineering program than Humanities U. While explaining this might be stultifyingly obvious, it’s astounding how frequently people forget the main point of going to college: obtaining a bachelor’s degree. The quality of food, size of the dorm rooms, study abroad opportunities, extracurricular options, college location and other features should be subordinate to academic considerations.
The second main feature is the campus culture and atmosphere. By this, I mean the campus’s size, location, options for recreation and student body. In my case, I wanted a small school with a tightly-knit student body, options for outdoor recreation and a campus culture that valued learning and devalued the corrosive mentality of frat life. For someone else that valued a big school with lots of fraternities and a prestigious business program, St. Olaf would be an idiotic choice. It is important to emphasize that these characteristics should be conceived of as broad contours of college life, and the details should be subsidiary to general considerations. Instead, the college search has devolved into noxious navel-gazing that goes well beyond these broad characteristics, with painstaking consideration given to non-academic particulars that turn out to be unimportant.
Finally, there’s the issue of being able to pay. While St. Olaf offers decent financial aid, for someone near the poverty line, it’s probably still an unwise choice. In this area, prospective students often get bogged down in the value of famous name-brand institutions and the exorbitant prices associated with them. However, research shows that Harvard, Princeton and other Ivy League schools don’t actually improve hiring prospects (unless you’re in business, thanks to the power of networking). Thus, academically-inclined high school students should focus on the reputation of the specific program they’re interested in and weigh this against the cost of attending, keeping in mind that prestigious schools are overrated and overpriced.
Now, I’m not writing a guidebook for choosing a college, especially since nearly everyone reading this has chosen St. Olaf. However, in my experience, there is a disturbing imbalance between the focus paid to these main features of importance, and the attention given to extracurriculars, effuse conceptions of “campus life” and shiny college programs utilized by a minority of students. As I reminisce on my past college search and interact with prospective students, I am reminded how stressful, meticulous and drawn-out college shopping has become in recent years. While a fair degree of attention is paid to the fundamentals of picking a college, what inevitably transpires is that students figure out that three or four colleges align with their main preferences, and then they pay inordinate attention to auxiliary attributes. Since admissions officers know that students care about these inessential features, they focus on them above and beyond the essentials, feeding a vicious cycle manifest in the rhetoric and presentations of admissions events. To be clear, this problem is not unique to St. Olaf. Instead, it’s a problem plaguing the entire higher-education industry, where students are treated as “valued customers,” admissions marketing becomes an arms race of corporate slogans and students are left feeling bewildered and overwhelmed.
Even worse, the trend has become a game-theory problem, where if one college tries to buck the trend by focusing strictly on its core attributes, it appears inferior to other schools that parade their fancy, “unique” offerings. There’s also an information asymmetry problem at play: while colleges and current students know what’s important to their undergraduate experience, prospective students have a murkier picture and thus can be misled by oodles of admissions marketing.
I don’t have an optimistic or actionable conclusion from these observations. Instead, I think it’s important simply to point out the problem, one that was supremely manifest in my college search. I toured 15 schools, applied to seven, and decided I was coming to St. Olaf several days before May first. However, in retrospect, I knew I wanted to come to St. Olaf almost a year before I pulled the trigger. The school offered excellent academics in my areas of interest, was financially affordable and had a compatible campus lifestyle and culture. However, I got bogged down in second-guessing my intuition and wasted exorbitant amounts of time stressing over the perfect decision. I hope that something eventually changes about this process, though I’m not particularly optimistic.