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College selection: factors to consider

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Key points

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.

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.

Some advantages of going to a prestigious college are:

Higher earnings

Data show 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. This suggests that going to a more prestigious college increases your expected earnings.

The actual increase in earnings will be less than the $31k/year difference: UC Berkeley students are probably more ambitious than students at UC Riverside, and also have higher ability even before going to UC Berkeley, so that one would expect a gap even if they were all to attend the same college. But the gap partially comes from prestige of college. 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.

KEEP IN MIND: Some people overvalue money and some people undervalue money. On one hand, a lot of people spend money on luxury goods that don't improve their lives, and could be just as happy with less. On the other hand, money can be used for many things, and even if you're not materialistic, you may care about some of the things that money can buy. Before making life choices based on financial considerations, you should develop a realistic sense for how much it costs to lead different kinds of life styles. We lay out some of the relevant considerations on our page about earnings.

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.

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

The larger a college, the larger the pool of students and professors who you have access to. Attending a large college can improve your prospects of finding your "niche" within the college. For example, if you're an international student and would like to spend time with people from your country, going to a larger college will generally improve your prospects for doing so.

Some people go to a small college because they want the intimacy of being in a small community. This may be an important consideration for some people, but it's important to note that one can find intimacy in a larger college by finding small groups of people who share your interests.

Going to a larger college can also offer you more options for courses to take. For example:

  • A large college might offer honors discrete math in addition to a standard discrete math course.
  • Larger colleges generally offer a greater number of highly specialized electives than smaller colleges do.

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.