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College selection: factors to consider

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The following factors are worth taking into explicit consideration:

  • Prestige: In general, the more prestigious a college is, the better the opportunities you'll have in life if you go there.
  • Flexibility for students: Some colleges offer students more freedom to shape their experience. The more freedom a college offers you, the better prospects you have for getting a lot out of the experience.
  • Strength in a given academic subject: Colleges of a given prestige level vary substantially in how strong they are in a given academic subject. If you have a very strong and specific academic interest, you should do research to find out which colleges have the best departments in that field.
  • Cost: Colleges that offer very similar academic experiences can vary widely in cost for the student based on their prestige, location, and other factors. However, the apparent cost of a college can be very unrepresentative owing to the possibility of receiving financial aid, and colleges that are apparently much more expensive than others may cost the same amount for you.

See also choosing between a large state school and a private school for an application of these considerations.

The prestige of the college that you attend matters

Some people say that you shouldn't worry too much about where you go to college, because it won't matter later on in life. While it's true that where you went to college tends to matter less the longer you've been out of college, it still has an impact on your life trajectory: the opportunities that are available to you early in life affect the opportunities that are available to you later on in life, and more prestigious colleges generally give you better opportunities than less prestigious colleges do.

Empirically, people who go to more prestigious colleges are more successful later in life. For example, survey data shows that mid-career annual earnings of UC Riverside graduates ~ $81k/year and of UC Berkeley graduates ~ $112k/year. UC Berkeley is generally considered the most prestigious University of California college, and UC Riverside among the least prestigious University of California colleges. Money isn't the only measure of success, but it's one.

There's a question of whether going to a more prestigious college causes someone to be more successful later in life. Students who go to more prestigious colleges are generally more capable and therefore would be more successful independently whether they went to a more prestigious college. There's an economics study that presents evidence that going to a more prestigious college does not affect one's earnings.

However, there's a widespread belief amongst elite populations is that going to a more prestigious school does play a role in determining one's success later in life, and we think that this should carry more weight than a single study. Some reasons why going to a more prestigious college breeds success are:

Signaling quality

There's a broad consensus that employers are generally more likely to hire a student from a prestigious school than a non-prestigious school, because going to a prestigious school signals that the student has higher ability than other people do. For example, high paying investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms show a strong preference for graduates of the top 4 ranked universities in the country.

Having a more capable peer group

Going to a more prestigious college exposes you to stronger students. Ben Kuhn at Harvard describes advantages of being in a peer group with stronger students:

By watching how more competent people work and think, you can often pick up useful study habits and better techniques for the subject you're studying [...] Both more advanced students and instructors can be very useful for the academic advice they provide later. Knowing talented students has given me info about several excellent courses, as well as summer opportunities, I wouldn't otherwise have known about. A professor who can become a good mentor is also invaluable.

Making connections with stronger students is also useful for networking later on in life, because stronger students tend to be in positions of greater influence later on than weaker students are.

KEEP IN MIND: Because differences within a college are often bigger than differences between colleges, don't assume that going to a prestigious college will automatically give you a capable peer group, or that going to a less prestigious college will preclude the possibility of finding a capable peer group.

Mentorship from higher quality professors

If you're pursuing a career in research and/or academia, having exposure to higher quality professors as an undergraduate can give you a head start. In particular, some professors do research with undergraduates, and if you can do research with higher quality professors, you can get to the cutting edge of the field faster, and learn more by observing how they think.

More accomplished professors are also better positioned to help you get into a good graduate school and network within their fields.

KEEP IN MIND: You usually have to take initiative to get good research opportunities as an undergraduate, and talk with the professors whose research interests you. You shouldn't expect to get good research opportunities by default.

Diverse colleges give you more options

Some colleges give you more flexibility with respect to the classes that you take, the classmates you spend time with, and the faculty who you interact with. The more flexibility you have, the more potential you have to make the most out of your college years. Of course, the effect that this will have on your experience depends on your ability to use the flexibility to your advantage.

KEEP IN MIND: A major factor that influences life outcomes is resourcefulness: your ability to research, seek out, and discern between opportunities that are available to you. Many people don't consider potential opportunities other than immediately visible ones. A little bit of imagination can go a long way toward improving your life.

Some ways in which colleges differ in the flexibility that they offer are:

Core requirements

Some colleges have more required courses than others. For example, Brown University is known for its "open curriculum," and has very few requirements:

In 1850, Brown's fourth president, Francis Wayland, argued that students should have greater freedom in pursuing a higher education, so that each would be able to "study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose." A century later, this vision became the basis for a new approach to general education at Brown: the open curriculum. Rather than defining a broad set of distribution requirements, the open curriculum gives students the freedom to choose for themselves.

By way of contrast, University of Chicago is known for its "Core curriculum," and has many required courses:

This famed Core curriculum, a model for American general education, is the University of Chicago student’s introduction to the tools of inquiry used in every discipline—science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society. Not only does the curriculum provide the background for any major and for continuing study after graduation, it also provides a common experience for all students in the College. All students have taken the same sorts of classes and read the same kinds of texts, struggling and triumphing over the same sorts of ideas. This gives every student a common vocabulary of ideas and skills, no matter his or her background before coming to the College. [...] The Core takes about 1/3 of your time at the College, but could be less depending on AP/IB credit and placement testing.

We believe that all else being equal, it's better for self-directed and strategic students to attend colleges with fewer required courses rather than more required courses, and that the benefits of a "common vocabulary" that University of Chicago cites are probably overstated.

Some colleges that require many courses are excellent choices for a given person: the "core requirements" consideration should be weighed against other considerations.

College size

Large colleges offer greater diversity than small colleges. See pros and cons of attending a large college for more information.

Do detailed research if you have a very strong and specific interest

In a given academic subject, colleges of the same general prestige level can vary substantially in quality. For example, George Mason University's economics department is stronger than economics departments at most colleges of a similar level of prestige. See this blog post for more information.

If you're very passionate about a given field, to the point where you think that there's a very high probability of you studying it in college, you should do detailed research on which colleges are strongest in it. For example, you should ask several professors within the field about which colleges have the best departments.

KEEP IN MIND: Even people who are strongly interested in a given subject often change interests, especially early in life. You should give weight to the possibility that your interests will change substantially.

Cost

  • College tuition varies enormously from college to college. For example, UC Berkeley charges $13k/year in tuition and Harvard charges $42k/year in tuition, so there's a $116k difference between the two over 4 years.
  • Just because a college has higher tuition than another college doesn't mean that it'll be more expensive to attend, even when the difference in tuition is very large. For example, using the UC Berkeley and Harvard financial aid calculators we found that for somebody whose family makes less than $140k/year and that have $300k or less in savings, attending Harvard is cheaper than attending UC Berkeley. We strongly urge you to use the online financial aid calculators for the colleges that you might be interested in applying to to assess whether you'd be able to get enough financial aid to afford them before ruling them out as too expensive.
  • Given two colleges of the same selectivity, with one more expensive than the other, we wouldn't expect there a difference in quality of instruction.
  • There's a study giving evidence that going to a more costly college increases your expected future earnings (independently of the prestige of the college), with the effect possibly coming from making connections with peers of higher socioeconomic status.

External links

From Quora: Does it really matter where one goes to college? Or, if you go at all?