Choosing the Best Fit College

If you have children entering high school and are considering sending them to the US for an undergraduate experience, you must read this.You can also read this if you simply wish to be better informed about the way the higher education system works outside India:

I first became aware of the numerous choices and kinds of colleges in the US when my son (now completing his junior or 3rd year in a college in the US), began exploring the option. Like all “well-informed” parents, we researched the known and big brands, including a few Ivies, the MITs, Stanfords and the likes. I also looked at some of the well-known public schools like Berkeley and Virginia and was overwhelmed by the choices and possibilities. Now, that was not all; my son’s counselor spoke to us about these seemingly nondescript small colleges which focus on undergraduate education and act as feeder schools of sorts to the large universities ( for graduate programs).

To put it mildly, we were thoroughly confused. On one hand, we veered towards the big brands- after all, how can applying and hopefully getting into an MIT or a Berkeley ever go wrong, we reasoned? It will give the best foundation for any young person. When we met our son’s counselor however, we were gently told that this may not quite be the way to look at it.

He said, rather than take the obvious approach of choosing what is “best” for your child, look at what is the best fit. Now, this is a new one, we thought. What does “best fit” mean?

And he explained that in India we typically take a look at “hard factors”- the reputation of the college as surmised from rankings and general brand awareness and decide that a certain set of colleges are the best. So, if your son or daughter is a topper and inclined towards the sciences you immediately start veering towards the MITs and Berkeleys while if it is humanities you would consider the Ivies, for example. The US system however dissuades us from making choices this way. According to counselors and even college admissions officers, there is no such thing as a best college:

“With more than 3,800 colleges in the U.S., your students’ options for higher education are many. You need to help them narrow the choice. The question students need to ask is not “Which are the best colleges?” but rather, “Which are the best colleges for me?” according to CollegeBoard, the institute that administers SAT and offers numerous resources for students.

Remember the student has to spend four years in the college and if he/she has to enjoy the experience and do well, it is important that he “fits” in.

So, what are the factors that need to be considered to determine fit?

1. Undergrad Program Size: Often not obvious to us in India is the fact that the undergrad program in a college may vary from 800 t0 1000 students to 30000+ students. That’s a big range. Also, the smaller programs are usually offered by colleges (not universities) that focus only on undergraduate education. Typically, we don’t hear about the latter category as much in India because the trend of Indian students pursuing undergrad programs is relatively new. Many of these colleges though offer a very good environment, and more importantly they focus 100% on undergrad students unlike the large research universities that pay attention to masters and doctoral students. The class sizes in large universities are bigger and getting the attention of the prof may be difficult. So, if your child is one who thrives in a smaller, individualized setting, you may want to think carefully about a large university. I can say this with confidence as my son goes to a small college and it has worked really well for him. So, if you are beginning your search now, do make sure you also research such colleges.

On the other hand, the bigger places come with more options, are less “clannish” and more anonymous. For some this may work better.

2. Selectivity: It is every parent’s dream to have their child accepted in prestigious colleges. But the child’s life maybe come a nightmare if he gets into a college that is too competitive for him. Again do remember that in the US, there are a few hundred colleges which rate as very good. So, it is better to choose a college where the student has a good chance of doing well, rather than pick a place where the going gets to be too tough.

3. Girls-only colleges: Did you know that there are many US colleges, including some well reputed ones that admit only girls? Anachronistic as the idea may seem, these colleges come with their own advantages, especially for international students. Many of these Aegean College have good funding, they also provide abundant opportunities. Lastly, the environment of having only girls may just work well for some. They may grow in confidence and blossom.

4. Location: May seem like a nice to have factor. But, please bear in mind some points: campuses in the US are spread across rural, semi-urban and urban locations. While rural campuses are usually the most beautiful and sprawling, they are more remote, and access is usually more time consuming. Urban campuses may afford quick access, but, on the flip side, they are smaller and may not offer on campus accommodation for students beyond the freshman or first year- on campus accommodation may be safer and more convenient for most, especially international students who are not as familiar with the local context, may not drive and have many demands on their financial resources. The choice of location may also be dependent on other interests a student has, and whether opportunities exist on campus or outside to nurture these. Of course, weather is also an important factor.

5. Research opportunities: If your child is inclined towards “doing” and learning, research projects are a great option. While most of us associate research with masters and doctoral programs, many US colleges do provide interesting research opportunities at the undergrad level, some more than the others. So, it may be a good idea to check this aspect out as well.

6. Campus lifestyle: The campus life can be very different across colleges. Some colleges are more “liberal” than others. Some have sororities and fraternities ( called the Greek life), some colleges let you be, while in some others you may feel compelled to be one of the crowd. While as a parent we might pay scant attention to campus lifestyle, for the student who will spend 4 years, this may be an important consideration. A related point is how active the Indian student community is. Some children miss India a lot and yearn for some connects including food, cultural experiences or just company. Again, some colleges and universities have Indian associations and communities while some others, especially the smaller ones may not. So, spend a few minutes figuring this out too.

So, now that we have the factors down, the first step is to do a broad search and identify a list of suitable colleges/universities. Then apply factors such as the above, in some prioritized fashion, to make a shortlist.

When we started, we were quite overwhelmed by the number of options that seemed equally good. But with some careful thought and discussions and inputs from Indian students who are already in the college, you can bring it down to a dozen or so. Needless to say, this list should reflect your child’s preferences rather than your preferences!

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