Don’t Choose A College On Name Alone

Now that more and more high school graduates are going to college, it seems that the pressure is on to find that ‘perfect’ college — you know, the one that will land you the greatest chance of landing a job? Well the thing is that there is no shortage of higher education options out there. So the major task at hand is selecting one ‘winner’ out of the entire lot.

Every person is different, so I’m not going to attempt to make any suggestions as to how to organize your priorities when selecting a college. But I will try to deter people away from thinking that a college’s brand name will be the wings that carry you over into the promised land of success. Now you may think that this is a contradiction to my previous post where I extolled the benefit of being an alumnus of a well-known school. But this isn’t the case. I will never deny that there are not benefits that come along with a degree from a well-known or prestigious institution. However its effectiveness may vary, and it’s a moot point if you are never able to finish the degree.

Colleges have ‘brands’ that applicants get wooed by. These brands can be created by the schools themselves…or by the public in general. In either case they can be very on point or descriptive or they can be very misleading. Sadly it may be impossible to completely determine this until you are a student on-campus for a semester or two…and that you can’t control. But what you can control is your ability to sit down and make the determination that the college should help enhance your own personal brand (if you have one), and not fall into the situation where you are looking for the college to help create your brand for you.

To illustrate, I’ll recount an unfortunate chapter in my collegiate life to show just how investing too much into a college’s brand can backfire completely. When I was in high school, I was determined to shoot for a career in the exciting world of aviation. I spent my sophomore and junior years collecting guidebooks and catalogs (college websites weren’t so wonderful back in those days) from different schools that offered aviation programs. Well when I applied and was accepted into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, I saw the proverbial doors to the yellow brick road to my awesome future open up to me. I never even considered factors such as the academic environment, the financial considerations, or the social fit. Most importantly, I never really examined my own commitment to a future aviation career or the thoroughness of the information that I had about the industry. It took three very expensive semesters at ERAU for me to discover just how much I did not know and at how foolish I was to think that a brand name college would be the ticket to future success.

Now hopefully, you don’t read the previous paragraph as any type of gripe against Embry-Riddle, which was (is?) known as the “Harvard Of The Skies”. They definitely have their share of successful alumni and happy students. But it is a niche institution and if you aren’t firmly committed to a career within that niche, then there is a very good chance you will not be a happy camper. Even if you do graduate.

Speaking of graduation, I always highlight the point that a college does you no good if you can’t earn a degree in the end. Trust me; I was a college drop-out for quite some time, appending my resume with ‘…attended ___ University, earned 65 credits in….’, yeah, yeah….who cares? Without having earned a degree, such a plug just ends up looking like a deficiency on most resumes (perhaps that’s a post for another day…on being a college dropout). A lot of factors contribute to the ability for a person to earn a degree. But I would not minimize the psychological aspect of being satisfied with both your studies and your college. Sure, you can earn a degree from a place you hate (I know, I’ve done it) – but why spend 4 or more years and thousands of dollars doing so? So other people’s opinions and the job market aside — what are you willing to compromise on and sacrifice in order to earn that ‘brand name’ degree?

So what can you do? Well I would consider the following:

  • How committed are you to your prospective major? Are there other options available to you at that school if it doesn’t work out?
  • What is the demographic profile of the institution? Be honest about your social comfort levels!
  • Don’t ignore finances! Calculate your net costs for each school. Take into consideration the cost-of-living rates of the area you’ll be spending 9 months out of the year in.
  • Geographic considerations (not as important if you are staying close to home) — this can affect transportation options and costs, climate (and wardrobe) changes as well as access to services and amenities.
  • Consider extracurricular activities. Not all of your waking moments will be consumed by academics. If on-campus activities are lacking, can local off-campus ones suffice? Is there a host community for your religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation?

A college with a strong brand name will help bring you into contact with some key people and situations that will help you on the path to success; but first you have to make sure that you can be a success at that school. Make a habit of doing the right thing for you; and not what the world says is right. One of the earliest opportunities that you’ll have to do this is in your choice of a college — so choose wisely!