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Avoid These 12 Assumptions When Choosing a College

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.

Helping a student choose a college? My advice is simple: Avoid the “Therefores.”

Through the years in my work in college admissions and as a college planning advisor, I’ve heard many variations on the 12 statements below from parents and students. It will be clear from my responses that I am a champion of small colleges.

I am not anti-big university, nor am I anti-community college. If an institution fits a student, then that is the place for them. I just don’t want parents and students to automatically exclude small private colleges from their search based on these common assumptions.

1. “We don’t have a lot of money…therefore, small private colleges will be too expensive.”

Eighty to 90 percent of small private colleges use the money they raise from alumni and other donors to make college affordable. In many cases, parents will spend the same or even less at a small college as they would at the big state U’s.

Read "Sticker vs. Net Price: Understanding the Real Cost of College" >

2. “My child is brilliant…therefore, they really need to go to an Ivy.”

A brilliant student does not have to attend an Ivy or any highly selective college. Many times, at small private colleges that are a bit less selective, the 4.6 GPA/36 ACT student is given research, publishing and presentation opportunities (even as a freshman) which help build their resume and enable them to get into the same graduate programs as the Ivy League students.

3. “I'm undecided about a major…therefore, I should go to community college to get my Gen Eds out of the way.”

Small private colleges are great for the undecided student. Class sizes tend to be smaller and advising is usually done by a member of the faculty. Professors put teaching and mentoring students above all else.

Also, General Education classes are NOT something to be “gotten out of the way” (like pushing peas and carrots to the edge of your plate). They are the very foundation of your entire educational experience.

4. “My daughter wants to be an engineer…therefore, she needs a university with a big engineering school.”

Despite what the rankings say, there is no “best college for X major.” Assuming that a particular college is THE place for engineering or business or any other major makes your search too narrow.

5. “I want to be a lawyer…therefore, I need to major in political science.”

Law schools (and med schools) admit students from many different majors. I always tell pre-law students to major in whatever they want to do if they decide to not be a lawyer.

6. “My student had a C/C+ average…therefore, they need to go to community college to get their grades up before applying to a four-year college.”

Small classes at private colleges often provide the individual attention needed to help the C student become an A/B student.

7. “I go to a large high school…therefore, I need to go to a college bigger than my high school.”

Comparing the size of a high school to the size of a college is like comparing a ping pong ball to a bowling ball. Other than the fact that both have people, food and classes, high schools and colleges are not at all alike.

8. “I'm not religious…therefore, I won't consider colleges with a religious affiliation.”

Religious affiliations at small private colleges vary greatly, from those that require chapel or a statement of faith, to those that only require a couple religion/philosophy classes, to those whose affiliation is mostly historical and have no required religious “anything.”

Ask questions, but don’t dismiss an entire class of colleges from your search.

9. “I'm a very social person…therefore, I want to attend a big university where there are a lot of people.”

Having 40,000 close friends is impossible. After working at six different small colleges, I have a theory, purely from observation, that friendship groups tend to be bigger at small colleges than at large universities.

10. “Our family has a lot of resources…therefore, colleges will not give us any financial aid.”

More than 500 colleges automatically discount the cost for ALL students immediately upon admission, regardless of income. Many schools offer merit aid to their top applicants regardless of a family's income level.

11. “I want Greek life…therefore, I need a big university.”

Fraternity and sorority life is vibrant at a lot of small private colleges. Based on a number of criteria (GPA, lack of hazing incidents, level of community service and philanthropy), Best College Reviews ranks smaller colleges highly for their quality of Greek life.

12. “I want to major in computer science…therefore, liberal arts colleges are out of the question.”

Programs in math, computer science, engineering and other STEM disciplines are very strong at many liberal arts colleges. In fact, companies recruit heavily from small private colleges because their graduates have also learned valuable soft skills such as leadership, communication, teamwork, creativity, time management and more.

Read "How Liberal Arts Can Help Your Student Get a Job" >

This is not a one-size-fits-all world.

My advice to parents is simple: Avoid the “therefores.”

Don’t simply follow the herd. Research carefully. Visit. Give small colleges a chance! Use your head and your heart, and encourage your student to do the same.

V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is an advisor with My College Planning Team based in the Chicago area. He retired after 42 years in the college admission business, most recently spending 27 years at Monmouth College. Peter holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Wartburg College.
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