Make your own value

The Today show ran this piece yesterday on the "Top 20 Best Value Colleges" which came from the results of a recent survey by The Princeton Review.  Now more than ever, families are asking questions–as they should–about the quality of colleges in relation to their sticker price.

Are private schools worth the money?

Will my education at a less selective public school be as good as the kind I might experience at a selective private school?

Which colleges will help me get a better paying job when I graduate?

But as you're comparing different colleges and what you'd be getting for your money, keep in mind that each student has enormous influence on the value of her college experience.

Here are two very different examples of students attending two very different schools.

Student #1 chooses to attend the cheapest public school in his state.  It's neither famous nor selective as it admits over 70% of the applicants.  He throws himself into the college experience.  He starts by visiting regularly with his academic advisor to talk about his courses and which ones he seems to like the most.  He visits professors during their office hours and gets to know them.  During his sophomore year, he chooses "regional development" as his major, a subject he first investigated at the urging of his advisor who thought he would love the courses (the advisor was right).  He's excited to go to class every day because he loves the subject matter.  He explores various activities and gets a part time job in the athletics office scheduling intramural sports games.  That job later turns into an internship where he works for the Director of Campus Activities.  When the school wants a student representative on the committee to plan for the new athletics complex, he interviews and is selected.  The summer before his senior year, the Director of Campus Activities hires him for a full time summer internship to coordinate student volunteers.  He does such a great job that they allow him to trim his hours and continue working during his senior year.  All the while, he's creating lifelong friendships and enjoying the fun that college has to offer.  He flourishes inside and outside of the classroom.  He graduates with honors, with a resume of experience, with professors and mentors who can advise him and serve as references, and with a lifetime worth of college memories.

Student #2 attends a highly selective, famous private college.  He majors in business because that's what he always said he wanted to major in.  He meets with his advisor only when he's required to and never fully avails himself of that resource.  He doesn't visit professors during their office hours.  He attends most, but not all of his classes, and is naturally smart enough to study the night before the test and pull off "B." He does fine academically, but certainly doesn't love his classes.  He plays intramural sports and makes some good friends, but doesn't ever seek out or locate an activity that he's passionate about.  During his college summers, he hangs out with his friends and has the occasional part time job to make extra spending money.  He doesn't cultivate any professional relationships with people who could serve as mentors or recommenders.  He makes some good friends and has his share of fun, but if you ask him, he really likes, but doesn't necessarily love college.  He graduates with a degree in business from a famous university, but no real experience other than his part-time summer jobs.  

So, who had the better college education?  Which student is likely to be more successful after college?  Which student got the best value for his college education?

The student is the variable in every college's education.  That's why it is almost impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy the potential quality and value of any one particular school.   

The best funded university in the world with small classes, plenty of support and loads of Nobel Prize winning professors won't be worth its tuition to the student who isn't willing to take advantage of those resources.  And the cheap public school that makes no appearance in the annual college rankings can become the launching pad to success for the right student who is naturally inclined to work hard and achieve his goals. 

Yes, you should be cost conscious when choosing colleges.  You should ask what you're going to get for your money.  And you should evaluate the spending decision just like you would with any purchase of a similar magnitude.  To do anything other than that would be irresponsible.

But it's important to remember that colleges don't make kids successful–kids have to do that for themselves.  A student's work ethic, curiosity, initiative, integrity and maturity–and what she does to apply those traits during her time in college–will have far greater influence over her happiness and post-college success than the name of her college will.  

If you want to get the most bang for your college buck, start your evaluation with the variable–the student.  Think about the kind of environment where a student would flourish, the kind of place where she can put her natural talents to the best use.  Then find the colleges that match that description.  Don't do it the other way around; don't pick famous colleges because you're sure they're "good" and then try to find a way to get accepted.

In college, you don't automatically get what you pay for.  You have to make your own value.