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Choosing a College or Graduate School

By Marty Nemko

‘Tis the season to pick your college or grad school.

But how to choose? The colleges don’t make it easy. So many students end up choosing the slickest brochure or most engaging tour guide rather than the best college or graduate program.

Here’s an insider’s approach to choosing:

  • Ask to see the college or program’s most recent accreditation visiting team report. That document summarizes experts’ evaluation of the college or program. Where might you obtain it? The admissions office, an administrative assistant in the academic department in which you’d be a student, the department chair, the institution’s website, or the office of the president.
  • Ask for the results from the latest student or alumni satisfaction survey. Try the above sources or the alumni office.
  • Ask an admissions officer or the chair of your prospective academic department, “What percent of students graduate in the expected time?” For example, what percentage of undergraduates graduate in four years? Even better, ask, “What percentage of students with grades and test scores similar to mine graduate in the expected time?”
  • Check out a prospective advisor. Read the faculty biographies in your prospective major or graduate program and phone the person you think you’d like to be your advisor. Would you like that advisor to be your mentor?
  • Go to the college’s or program’s website. Review the course descriptions and syllabi for the courses you’d likely be taking. How beneficial do you think those courses would be?
  • Sit in on advanced class. At the end of class, ask students how they liked the program and about the career prospects for graduates. Afterwards, also ask yourself, “Could I see myself fitting in with these students?”
  • Compare financial aid packages among the schools that admitted you. Many financial aid packages consist mostly of interest-bearing loans. Also ask, “If my financial situation doesn’t change, am I guaranteed the same amount of cash aid each year I’m in school?”
  • Talk with the person who specializes in helping graduates find jobs. What percentage of graduates in your major or program land good jobs within six months of graduation?

Remember, there is a glut of college and graduate degree holders. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that for the first time since it started collecting data, there are more unemployed college graduates than high school dropouts! Why? Because colleges continue to admit students without regard to whether they will be employable, and because companies are offshoring many well-paying jobs but not the low-paying ones that only high school dropouts are willing to accept.

Don’t be deceived by the statistic that college and graduate degree holders earn much more over their lifetimes. You could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years and they’d earn more because, as a group, they’re brighter, more motivated, and have more family connections than the non-college bound. Yes, a degree adds to your employability, but so would four years at what I call You U: on-the-job training, especially if you supplement by finding mentors, reading books and articles, attending seminars, and professional conferences. And instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars, you’d be earning tens of thousands of dollars.

Advice I’d Give My Child

Amy, colleges and graduate schools are great places to learn for the sake of learning, to become a more thoughtful citizen, a connoisseur of life, and certainly to meet interesting people. But colleges do a poor job of career preparation. You spend too much time learning huge quantities of arcana of interest primarily to academic types or theoretical models with little applicability to the real world. .Think of all those Yale Law School graduates you know who came out feeling they had no idea how to practice law and had to learn on the job.

Sure, if you wanted to be a doctor, you have to go to medical school. But as someone who aspires to being a leader, an activist, and the like, consider foregoing State U let alone Private U in favor of You U.

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