When trying to select the ideal college, students and parents usually focus on a school’s academic strengths and weaknesses. However, the classroom is only one learning opportunity in and around a college.
The college education actually has four components: formal education, on-campus extracurricular activities, off-campus study and internships, and student-body interaction.
The student body itself is perhaps the greatest asset and catalyst for learning, but it is often overlooked in the college selection process. Young people are not less intelligent than adults; they’re simply less experienced. No matter how many hours are spent with brilliant professors, a student will spend many more hours connecting with classmates. As a result, student interaction is an integral part of the educational process.
How people interact is largely a function of where they interact. The methods by which students travel and the places where they interface can promote or limit student interaction. On visits to prospective colleges, students should focus on the sidewalks rather than the buildings. In terms of human communication, driving to campus for class is dramatically different than walking and talking with a group, as is riding a bicycle.
When visiting a campus, don’t just look at the outsides of buildings; look inside to see where and how students socialize and learn from each other. Living in a dormitory allows for more expansive interaction than does living in an apartment. College tours often display the freshman living quarters, but they seldom show where students live during their sophomore, junior and senior years.
The greater the diversity of the student body, the greater the diversity of the information shared by the student body. Highly-selective colleges take great efforts to formulate classes comprised of a wide assortment of people, paying attention to regional, ethnic, socioeconomic, and even political diversity. When people with different experiences and different thoughts congregate together, individuals learn from the variety of knowledge and influences presented.
Carefully investigate extracurricular activities and whether their participants consider the activities to be vital to their educational paths and career aspirations or merely useful for entertainment purposes. Talk to the people who work at the college newspaper, or radio station, or political group. Are they passionate about what they do, and does the activity teach them things that cannot be learned in class? Are there extracurricular opportunities in areas that one might not have considered? Many people are surprised that Harvard produces more so many comedy writers.
Educational opportunities exist beyond the campus boundaries as well. Jobs and internships, even co-op educational programs, are more available in large cities than in small college towns. A student who is interested in studying medicine should look at the number, variety and quality of hospitals and medical centers within reach of a college campus. One who is interested in politics will find more opportunities in Washington D.C. than in Washington State. New York City is unique not only for business students, but also for thespians. A student with an interest in fitness as a career may learn from both intercollegiate athletic programs and from a professional sports franchise, if one is nearby. Research whether a college allows its students to cross-register at other local universities, allowing for a virtually endless array of choices. And don’t forget to identify how a student travels around a place: are things within walking distance, is there a good bus system or subway, or is a car required?
Finding the right college fit means looking beyond published academic rankings. It requires examining how a college creates spaces within which its students interact; how extracurricular activities can supplement the formal education; and how local opportunities can expand what is learned on campus.