October 2008 Issue
Students often choose a college or university for reasons beyond their intended field of study.
Ohio State University sophomore Jael Pitts couldn’t have been happier in her senior year of high school. With a goal of becoming an equine surgeon, she held acceptance letters from OSU and Cornell University, both offering excellent veterinary medicine programs. But when it came time to make her final selection, it wasn’t the top-ranked academic programs of either institution that helped make her choice clear. It came down to conspicuous details, beginning with staff friendliness at each school. “When I visited Cornell, it wasn’t like Ohio State,” says Pitts, explaining that the Ivy League school’s reception left her feeling insignificant and unwelcome. But at OSU, she felt encouraged: “The advisors at OSU were extremely helpful, and made me feel like they were happy I was there.”
Another aspect that attracted the small-town girl from West Virginia to the large institution was the immense size of the campus and student body (more than 50,000). While it may be overwhelming for some, Pitts was intrigued. “I think OSU is bigger than my entire town,” she says. “It’s huge and amazing.” And, the well-known school spirit of the Big Ten school was definitely a draw: “Who couldn’t help falling in love with watching the football team, being a part of the crowd and cheering?” she adds.
It’s not always about finding the college with the best reputation in the state or country; it is about finding the college that is a match for an individual student. While most education experts agree academics should be a top priority for college-bound students when narrowing their school choices, there are many other factors that play into the selection process. Today’s students have the option to pick and choose, so ultimately, an institution’s individual characteristics and personality can make or break a student’s final pick.
Size, Setting and Location
When searching for that “just-right feeling,” prospective students typically give top consideration to the size of the school, distance to and from home, or the community they will reside in, whether rural or urban, explains Stuart Oremus, director of college counseling at The Wellington School in Columbus. These options do matter for students, Oremus says, because they will be living in that environment for the next four to five years. “Some students will find greater comfort at a smaller school with more access to professors and a feeling of community, and others want the feeling of big sports with tons of majors to choose from,” she adds.
Denison University freshman James Jones says he always knew he wanted to attend a school with an enrollment of fewer than 5,000 students, because he felt he would get more individual attention. However, he wasn’t quite sure how close to his Columbus home he wanted to be, so he applied to seven schools, four in Ohio and three out of state. After campus visits and a great deal of reflection, he determined Denison (with an enrollment of approximately 2,100) was the right choice for him. “It felt like home,” he says, “and all the students seemed so happy and lively. In the end, I realized I actually preferred to be closer to home; I just wasn’t ready to be six hours away.”
Gary Swegan, assistant vice provost and director of undergraduate admissions at Bowling Green State University, concurs that location is a strong driving factor for most prospective students. While some opt for out-of-state institutions, Swegan says, “Statistics show that more than 90 percent of students, virtually on all campuses across the nation, end up choosing a college within 150 miles from their home. At Bowling Green, 51 percent of our students come from within 100 miles, and the next 40 percent come from within the next 50 miles.” Typical considerations include travel expense, how much independence the student needs or wants and availability and affordability of off-campus housing after the first two years.
The Price Tag
Swegan points out that another pivotal issue for families in the school selection process is affordability. “Over the last five years, the whole sort of scholarships arms race has made a fundamental change in families’ minds in how a student settles on a school,” he says. “Once a student narrows down his or her choice to a set of three to five schools, families ultimately make their decision based on the lowest bottom cost, even if that means going with the student’s second- or third-choice school.”
Similarly, Tom Canepa, associate vice president for admissions at the University of Cincinnati, adds: “Many times families think it’s going to be more expensive than it really is; students think they’re not going to be able to afford a particular college, so they don’t even apply. They don’t look into scholarships, and moms and dads don’t apply for financial aid because they think they won’t qualify.”
Study-abroad, internship, co-op, specialized-training and service-learning opportunities are significant variables enticing prospective students today. The advantages of tying classroom work to real-world experiences, exploring interests to help determine a career path, broadening foreign-language skills and developing lifelong citizenship skills can be beneficial in gaining employment after graduation. The success of graduates may also factor into a college choice.
“Several of UC’s academic programs have cooperative programs integrated right into them, such as engineering, which is a five-year program,” says Canepa. “Students alternate each quarter in class or in a job, so by the time they graduate, they have a year’s worth of experience, with jobs lined up before graduation.”
The impressive variety of credit-earning study-abroad programs offered at OSU was yet another element that grabbed Pitts’ attention when researching schools, along with the fact that many of the university’s trips are chaperoned by professors. “I’m taking a class this fall that coincides with an upcoming trip,” she says enthusiastically, adding that she will be accompanied by a professor and 50 of her peers when she heads to Ireland over winter break.
James Morehouse, a senior at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, plans on attending a small, private Catholic college in the fall of 2009, an option he says he will not waver on. He has narrowed his picks to four Jesuit colleges and, Morehouse observes, “What attracts me most to these schools is the large amount of service opportunities available, offering a chance to give back to the community, which is a big part of the Jesuit philosophy.”
Schools have unique characters, and prospective students judge them both objectively and by visceral impressions.
Institutions with a religious affiliation, such as John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland, offer students a chance to attend a school with others who hold the same values, thus making them feel more at ease. “At JCU, students have conversations about ideology and faith in a different way than [they would at] a public school, in and out of the classroom, focusing on spiritual development and personal values and ethics,” says Brian Williams, vice president for enrollment at JCU, which is affiliated with the Jesuit order. “Academics may get schools on a student’s list, but the social environment plays a huge role in a student being satisfied.”
The composition of a school’s student body is also an important consideration. T. David Garcia, director of undergraduate admissions at Ohio University, says students visiting OU not only fall in love with the beautiful campus but also the variety of student backgrounds. “Prospective students often comment that after visiting OU and interacting with current students, they can see themselves here because they know they won’t have to wear a certain type of clothing or feel obligated to join a sorority if they choose not to; they feel that they would be able to be whoever they want to be because there is no one set culture here.”
Beautifully manicured campuses, massive recreation centers with rock-climbing walls, brand new residential halls — these are only a few of the amenities now being demanded by college-bound students, and they are the most influential characteristics being presented by college recruiters, explains educational consultant Barbara Pasalis of Northcoast Education Consulting. “Students of today have a sense of entitlement, and they want more,” she says. But sometimes, she adds, students and parents are overly swayed by these temptations, along with promotional giveaways, first-year car privileges, numerous dining options, colorful Web sites and more. “Even weather can entice a student,” she admits. “Visiting a campus on a sunny summer day with flowers blooming or leaves changing colors in the fall season can be extremely appealing.”
Perry Robinson, vice president and director of admissions at Denison University, adds: “Amenities of a college campus are absolutely [having] greater and greater weight in this student generation than ever before. There’s lots of building and development taking place on campuses to keep up with the competition. Colleges and universities spend millions of dollars promoting and marketing themselves to paint the most favorable picture they can.”
Nevertheless, Robinson warns, however students are persuaded to add a school to their list, families must be wise consumers. “Ask the hard questions,” he says. “A school must be a good match for a student, and visiting a campus can help determine that.”