• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


How Did You Choose Which College to Attend?

A question for my wise and worldly readers.

October 11, 2019

I recently had a deeply frustrating exchange with a colleague about how students select the colleges they eventually (and sometimes serially) attend. It got me thinking about the ways that students choose.

For the sake of clarity, I’m thinking it might be most useful to ask folks about their own choices. Fair is fair, so I’ll answer my own question.

In high school, I had visions of becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge. (To be honest, if I could skip the law school and lawyer parts and go straight to judge, I’d still probably do it.) So I wanted a college with a good record as a pre-law feeder. I was intimidated by large places, so I thought that a small college would be more comfortable. And I wanted some distance from where I grew up, but still in the Northeast.

At my local public library, I found the Fiske guide to colleges and pored over its profiles of New England liberal arts colleges, making an actual list. In discussions with Mom, we put together a college tour, and we visited Williams, Amherst, Brown and Wesleyan. Williams came closest to my idealized image of a New England liberal arts college, so that was that.

(In fairness to my younger self, Williams is pretty New England liberal arts college-y. I got that part right.)

In retrospect, it was a weirder and more awkward fit than I realized at the time. Many of the students there were very '80s James Spader, which I decidedly was not. But it took me a while to figure that out. I also discovered that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. But I can’t blame myself for not knowing that at 16. I know some who didn’t figure that out until their 30s or 40s.

The Boy’s process was similar, except that he focused on pre-med, rather than pre-law, and he wanted a larger school. (Unfortunately for our finances, he inherited the “nothing too close to home” gene.) Like me, though, he had an occupational goal in mind, and a fairly methodical way of sifting through options. We did a series of visits. By the end, he even had a spreadsheet.

But people choose colleges in all sorts of different ways, for all sorts of different reasons. Sometimes reasons that seem almost random in retrospect wind up leading to happy outcomes; sometimes the best-laid plans falter. Sometimes people choose multiple colleges in a row, as many community college students do.

I’m guessing that my wise and worldly readers -- the single best part of the blog -- have some pretty great stories of how they chose. So I’ll just put it out there. Wise and worldly readers, how did you decide where to go?


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