An Open Letter to Parents and Prospective Students Re: Your College Choice
Ignore the college tour. Look for other things.
Dear Parents and Prospective Students Who Have a Choice of College:
It is high season for campus tours here at the College of Charleston. Because I am situated across from the student union and down the way from the president’s house, the street outside my office is part of the tours’ path and I hear the student guides and parents and prospective students shuffle by my office several times a day.
It makes me smile, thinking about our collective futures.
Our college shows very well. The weather this time of year is perfect. We’re nestled in the midst of one of the top tourist destinations in the world. We have some charming old buildings mixed with some sparkling new ones and the historic Cistern and Randolph Hall frequently show up on television and in movies.
My advice to you, however, is to ignore everything you see, hear, or experience on these college tours or via the schools' glossy brochures. Do not be swayed by the boasts of leading-edge technology, or state-of-the-art anything.
I say this because there are only two things that you will have ten or twenty years after your graduation, your relationships with your friends, and the experiences and encounters you have with faculty.
In fact, for the purposes of making your decision, you might as well just use the equation of college = faculty.
But what about the dorms and cafeterias and libraries and fitness centers and student services and classrooms and student organizations and sports and fraternities and sororities and bars and restaurants you might be saying?
All of these things may have some importance, but my advice to you is to make sure that each of these elements is “good enough,” but not better than that, because every dollar that is spent on these things may be a dollar that is not spent on something more meaningful to the quality of your education.
Now, classrooms should be nice enough to keep from being an impediment to learning. They should be clean and bright and sufficiently-sized. The cafeteria food should be healthy and appetizing, but need not be gourmet nor promise every flavor of the world on a nightly basis. The dorms should be comfortable for sleep, work, and socializing, but many of you may only live in them for a year.
Those TempurPedic mattresses seem awesome, but you are still young and flexible and will do just fine on springs. If you wonder how a school can have such nice stuff, the answer is probably, “because you’re paying for it.”
The school should provide resources that will allow you to be fit and active, facilities and intramurals and the like, but you should ask yourself what you’re really going to make use of and how you’re going to use it.
For example, on the campus tour you may be shown a state of the art climbing wall, and you may think that if this place has a climbing wall, they must have everything, but it may be that because they have a climbing wall, they may not have something else.
When you are on these tours, the campus guides will tell you about all the amazing things the school has, but if you have a chance, ask the guides about the people. Ask them for a story about an encounter with faculty. Ask them if they’ve had a conversation with a professor not directly related to an assignment or class logistics. Ask them if it seems like the faculty enjoy their work.
There’s a few other things you can do. See if you can discover what percentage of your classes will be taught be adjunct or contingent faculty. Go to the web pages of the departments in your prospective major and count how many assistant, associate or full professors – as opposed to instructors or adjunct professors – are on the roster. Do this not because visitors and adjuncts are inferior teachers (it is often the opposite), but because it is an indicator of the school’s attitude toward the importance of undergraduate education. The more non-permanent faculty you see, the more likely the school is to treat the undergraduate teaching mission as an afterthought, something that must be done, but not necessarily done as well as possible.
If you go to a public institution, look up the salary of the president. If it is more than $500,000 per year, you should be concerned.
My colleagues may be surprised by and disagree with this next recommendation, but you should also go to Ratemyprofessor.com and look at what students say about their faculty. You should ignore the ratings because they are ridiculous, and instead look at the comments for words like the following: challenging, engaging, enthusiastic, friendly, passionate, amazing, honest, love, knowledgeable, discussion, caring, available, helpful.
When you leave your school, all those amazing amenities and facilities will remain exactly where they are. You may visit them for homecoming, but they are of no use to you.
On the other hand, that one professor in that one class may change the trajectory of your entire life.
Ask anyone who has completed college what remains and they will tell you the same.
Choose well, choose wisely, and maybe I’ll see some of you in the Fall.
I see lots of students tweet their college choices.
 Noted that parents are probably not saying this.
 Any school that thinks a it must pay a president this much is likely run on a business model that does not privilege undergraduate education.
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