Getting Real About College

I get to see a lot of college marketing brochures and school catalogs, and the idealized images inside each one makes college seem more like a four-year vacation in a Disney-esque environment than a rigorous process of specialized education. But, of course, that is why they call it marketing, isn’t it? Everything you hear, read or experience as a potential student—from the brochures and mailings to the campus tours and interviews with Dean Smarty-pants—is marketing hype.

Picking a college is sort of like buying a new car. The people on the lot are going to be helpful, courteous, and flattering. They are going to go to any length to answer any question you have. They will tell you how perfect the car is for you, and how perfect you are for the car. They just aren’t going to tell you the truth. For the truth you are going to have to look elsewhere. Consumer Reports will give you an honest overview, but that’s just an overview. To get the real deal on the particulars of a new car you are going to have to find a seasoned mechanic familiar with the make and model and get him to look under the hood. That’s exactly how you need to approach choosing a college.

To really get to know a college, you’ve got to look under the hood. And to do that, you have to be immune to the marketing hype. Don’t think you’re too smart for hype, as that’s how they get you. Here are some simple truths marketers don’t want you to know about college.

1. Picking a college is a lot like buying coffee

I once heard Andrew Zolli, a design economy guru, tell this great story about how the design economy works. He said something to the effect of: “If you bought raw coffee on the commodities market it would be unbelievably cheap—like ten cents a metric ton. You could pave your driveway with the beans. If you took a few pounds of them and roasted, ground, and packaged them in a can you could get about four bucks for a few pounds—that’s Folgers. If you took just a few scoops of those beans, brewed it, added some steamed milk and placed it in a paper cup—that’s Starbucks—then that cup of coffee would sell for about four bucks.”

How’s this relate to higher education? Knowledge is cheap; libraries and the internet make it basically free. If you had nothing else to do and spent every day methodically reading your way through the stacks of a good public library for four years, I can almost guarantee that you would come out with a better education than the average college student. Unfortunately, you would only have knowledge and not a degree (i.e. you are just the coffee beans that you could use to pave your driveway).

Now, if you went to a community college for two years, then on to an average state university where you graduated with a degree from a program that is regarded as adequate—despite the fact that I have just told you you’d probably have less knowledge—you would be at the Folgers level of the design economy. You are no longer a commodity; you are a value brand. When you buy Folgers you expect a certain standard of quality and freshness. The same thing is true for employers when they hire value brand employees. The degree is certification that you have met the standards they expect the university listed on your diploma to produce.

People who have degrees from private schools, the Ivy leagues, or better programs from state schools are Starbucks—a premium brand. Becoming a premium brand costs you a little more, but it also means that eventually you will be able to command a better price in the marketplace. However, keep in mind that just because there is a Starbucks on every corner doesn’t mean everyone is buying.

You have to ask yourself: What type of brand do I want to buy? What type of brand do I want to be? These are the most important questions to ask yourself when picking a college. Do you want a value brand college or a premium brand college? What do you want to do with the degree you’ll be getting? Ask yourself: Why is it worth spending or saving the money by choosing a specific school? Sometimes, the less obvious answer is the right one.

Let me give you an example that may help illuminate how many people go about making this decision. Unfortunately, the very best example I can think of involves two friends who just went to law school, which is graduate school, and not college, but the example still holds true.  My friend Rob wanted to be an entertainment lawyer in L.A. These are highly sought after positions, so not just any law school would do. It had to be one of the best. So he applied to several and was accepted at his first choice—NYU.

My friend Kristin also wanted to be a lawyer, but she wanted to settle near home after graduation. The highest-ranked law school in the state was about two hours from her hometown. After being accepted at the better state school, she instead chose to attend a more expensive, lower ranked private school in her hometown. When I asked why, she explained,“Well look, my parents have practiced law here since before I was born. Half the people who run the most powerful law firms in the county are regular guests in my home, and if I go to the private law school in the same town I’m going to meet the other half. If I do well in law school and pass the bar I will be in a position to pick from any of these firms. So I’ll pretty quickly become a big fish in a small pond.”

Many of you might be asking “Why didn’t she choose the higher- ranked school? It is only a few hours away!” The answer lies in her post- graduation goal of working for a firm in her hometown. What I hope you take away from Rob and Kristin’s stories is that sometimes only a premium brand school will do, and other times, in specific cases, the value brand is the premium brand.

2. You can beat the SAT/ACT Requirement

To be accepted at most U.S. colleges and universities you are going to have to submit either an SAT or an ACT score. Some schools also use these scores to determine scholarship eligibility. The SAT is a product of Educational Testing Service and the ACT is a product of ACT, Inc. ACT used to stand for American College Testing, but now they do more than that so ACT just stands for ACT. Just like Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC.

Actually SAT, ACT, and KFC are not that different. They all sell a product with a secret recipe. The Colonel’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices is one of the best-kept secrets in corporate America. Fortunately, the secrets to beating the SAT and ACT are not so well kept. There are more cheat books for the SAT and ACT than all the Nintendo Wii games ever made. Well, not really, but you get the point.

The big publishing names in this field are SparkNotes, Barron’s, Kaplan, and Princeton Review. Check them out from the library, bookstore, or on Amazon.com, whichever is easiest. I suggest Amazon because the reviews will help you see the strengths and weaknesses of each book. Personally, I benefited greatly from the Princeton Review, but that is just because I am the absolute worst standardized test-taker on the planet.

As much as I would love to take credit for figuring this out on my own, such is not the case. A friend of mine turned me on to The Princeton Review; it had helped him get into Georgia Tech and guided me in the ways of beating the test. For one month I concentrated just on my weakest area a few hours a day and now, according to the test, it’s my strongest area. Think what would have happened if I had concentrated for two months on both math and verbal. Take as much time as you can, a few months if you have it, and study up as the book advises. Then take the test.

The point of all of this is that the ACT and the SAT are doable. You can take them and do well on them with a little hard work and a few practice tests. But don’t read too much into them. Mary Schmich, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, once advised her readers not to read beauty magazines as they will only make you feel ugly. In the same spirit, I suggest that you do not worry too much about your SAT scores as they will only make you feel stupid.

If you take my advice on this and still don’t have scores to get into the school of your choice, remember these things:

Avoid a career in taking standardized tests. You’re bad at them.

This is in no way a reflection on your academic ability, and this score alone will not keep you from attending most colleges. My low assessment of these tests is far from unusual in academic circles. More and more schools are looking at them less and less. What are they looking at? What each school feels is the right combination of grades and letters of recommendation. So make sure you do well at these.

3. School selectivity/exclusivity is little more than hype

Selectivity is one of the largest frauds perpetrated on first year students and/or their families. The marketing pitch of selectivity goes like this: “So many bright and talented people want into our school that the admissions officers have to set very high standards for entrance.” Publications like Peterson’s Guide, and the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings issue, help perpetuate this nonsense. Be aware that you may have the unfortunate experience of hearing this marketing pitch again later in life, most likely related to Timeshares, Condominiums or Preschools. In all cases it is hype. Note: I did not say it is complete hype.

Why do I say it is hype at all? Selectivity means there is a large applicant pool. That’s it. It doesn’t mean that there is a large applicant pool because every major at this school is the best place in the world to study. Maybe it’s just “the big state school” or maybe they have a kickin’ sports team that draws the moths to the flame. Maybe they were voted Best Party School by Playboy five years running. Whatever the draw is, all the selectivity stuff means is that a lot of people want in. Independence Day was, at one time, the highest grossing film of all time. A broad audience appeal is not the same as quality.

A more important distinction than selectivity is your major. How is that specific part of the school that offers your major regarded? Go back to Peterson’s and U.S. News and check out that statistic. It’s much more important than selectivity. Colleges and universities, much like accreditation agencies, are little fiefdoms.

Make sure your fiefdom is considered cool by the people you want it to be considered cool by. That is the true measure of your school, and therefore your degree, in terms of its commodity status.

4. It’s what comes out that matters

Picture this—yours truly is strolling across one of the most select schools in the Southeast. I am set to speak in a few hours but have come early to soak up the vibe, talk with students, think up local color jokes. It’s early in the semester and the campus has been buzzing with activity all day. Gradually I notice that all the busy little bees seem to have flown back to their hives. I pull out the mighty iPhone and look at the time. I kid you not—it’s 4:20 on the nose. My first thought is “Oh, I am so using this joke later.”

Well later on I tried out that joke on a Residence Advisor and she replied, “Yeah, we have a little problem with that here.” So I probed a little deeper. It turns out they brought me in because for the past few years they had admitted highly successful students who, for some reason gradually turned into slackers. Now to this unnamed school’s credit they saw the problem and were trying to fix it. I was fortunate to be a small part of their solution.

Is there a moral to my story? Is Harry Potter in the House of Gryffindor? First, this was a very selective school, and it deserved to be one. Second, they had a problem and were trying to fix it. Third, if you are considering a school, don’t look at the selectivity of the school. That only tells you what type of student is admitted. Look at what happens to the students that graduate. What percentage go on to graduate school? What percentage are working in a field related to their degree? Try and get really specific numbers. The more readily a school is willing to share this data with you should tell you something. It should not tell you everything, but it’s a much better indicator then selectivity, which is total B.S.

5. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again

Even if they pass on you the first time selective schools will often accept you later on. First, don’t take it personally; admissions officers have a tough job. Unless they are psychologically disturbed, no one gets off on rejecting people. If the school employs people who are psychologically disturbed you don’t want to go there.

Sadly for them, and luckily for you, some of the best and brightest people who are selected to attend any school fail out. More move on for other reasons. They just do. It’s more likely to happen in the first few years than the last few years, so by sophomore and junior year usually there are seats open. Since less people know they can transfer in, less try, and the odds that were once against you are now for you. That’s all.

6. Wherever you go, there you are

There is no “right” school or degree. Too often schools try to market themselves as a gateway to opportunity or the place where you can cease sucking and start being superior. You will always have opportunities and you can always start being superior where you are. Yes, certain corporations pick from certain schools. But “you are what you do” is not at all the message I want you to take away from this book.

What you do and how much you make are factors but they are only some of the factors. I know scads of people who went to the “right” school and got the “right” job. Only now that they have the “right job” they don’t like it. But they have to keep the job to pay off all the student loans that it took to get the job.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell refers to this as “having your ladder up against the wrong wall.” If you don’t know it’s the wrong wall until you are high up, the trip down is going to feel pretty long.  People with their ladders up against the wrong wall often find ways to compensate. They take a lot of trips, surround themselves with nice things, or upgrade to a trophy spouse. The point here is that no school, degree, or alumni card can ensure that you place your ladder up against the right wall, so don’t ask them to.

7. Like a stock your scholarships can rise and fall

I once went to a private school for about two weeks. It was everything someone could want in a college. I, like a host of other people, was working out financial aid while picking out classes and attending orientation. At one point, I was standing in the financial aid line next to a guy who was in his last semester. He looked a little nervous. “I hope they don’t cut me again,” he said. “Pardon me?” I inquired. “When I started here I had a full scholarship,” he continued. “Every semester they have made me pay a little more. It’s making me rethink graduate school.” “What do you owe?” I asked. I don’t remember his exact figure, but it was enough to end my time at the school. I packed my bags the next day.

That’s a true story and not an isolated incident. Colleges, especially private colleges, have limited institutional scholarship resources—private money the school gives you, or someone else, for your education. Now, to be fair to the school, I never asked that guy why they were cutting him. For all I know he was the campus beer pong champion and he was being cut for academic reasons.

Just make sure you know what you are getting into if a school offers you a scholarship. Make sure that you know how long it is guaranteed to last. Get the offer in writing. If you know that you will be weaned off a particular scholarship over the years you’ll have time to find other income sources to fill the gap. This possibility need not be a big deal unless it hits you when you are unprepared. So be prepared.

But you could also be prepared to get new scholarships. If you get into a school and do well there is no reason not to be on the lookout for and campaign for new scholarships. If you do well. I’ll be fully defining “well” in the chapter entitled Using College to Prepare For the Rest of Your Life. Too often when people are trying to put a scholarship package together for themselves they stop working after the first semester. Whatever you pay that first semester at a school you are attending could be the most expensive semester. As most of us go through life we should always be looking for ways to increase our income. This same maxim applies for scholarships.  Keep looking online for national and regional scholarships. Keep going to fastweb.com and create a profile. Do that right now-- don’t put the book down--but do it right now. Once you have a profile keep that profile updated. FastWeb will update you as scholarships match your profile.

Keep looking at your school institutional scholarships. Schools have all sorts of scholarships. The ones they offer you the first time aren’t the only ones they have to offer. Try and get a list of all the scholarships they have. Even if you don’t get some of them the first semester or the first year you can get them eventually. You may not become eligible for some scholarships until you declare a major. Try and make an ally in financial aid or even better consider getting a work study position in financial aid. When you have a little free time at work you can research your options. The way to keep getting scholarships is to keep looking for them.

8. Ivy League schools aren’t necessarily better schools

If you get the chance, go to an Ivy League school. But don’t go because you think the education is better—it’s not. Before I say another word I am going to call in a guest speaker on the subject. Gentle reader, I give you Dr. Freeman Dyson.

Dr. Dyson is a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His professional interests are in mathematics and astronomy. Among his many books are Disturbing the Universe, Infinite in All Directions, Origins of Life, From Eros to Gaia, Imagined Worlds, and The Sun, the Genome. Back in the day he was interviewed by Wired, this is what Dr. Dyson had to say about his daughter Esther’s time at Harvard:

As I could see she never did any studying or went to classes. . . So I said, “You know, I am paying tuition for you. And I find it a little bit surprising that you don’t seem to do any studying.” She told me, “Oh, no, Daddy, you don’t understand. You don’t come to Harvard to study. You come to Harvard to get to know the right people.”

Finally Dyson offers (and I couldn’t make this up if I tried), Harvard was ideal for her because they don’t care about the undergraduates. It’s essentially a graduate school; the undergraduates are left to sink or swim.

I utilize Dyson’s comments not to bash Harvard or any of the Ivy League schools. I quote Dyson because there is truth in what he says. If you are interested in social networking or climbing the social/professional ladder, the Ivys are the place to go. But remember that is what you are paying for and make use of it. If you are not going to make use of it, go to a public ivy or the school that has the best program of study you are interested in. This may sound like a rebuff of all Ivy League schools and it’s not. The Ivy League schools are often held up as the finest schools in the world and in many ways they are. All I’m saying is that from an undergraduate point of view, be careful to realize what it is you are paying for.

9. Don’t choose a school; choose a program at the school.

There are two things to consider when selecting a school. The school will usually want to sell you on what a good school it is, and the overall quality of the institution is a factor, but the last two years you are at that school you are in a degree track. The quality of the degree track is what matters.

A great school can have a cruddy degree track that won’t really prepare you for what you want to do after graduation. This is one of the ways that people end up with college degrees that are useless to them. They chose a good school with a bad program of study. If you are transferring into a school your junior year, this is particularly important to consider as you will be getting almost none of the benefits of that school and all of the problems of the degree tracks.

How do you get around this problem? Ask the admissions person a few key questions. (1) What is the graduation rate of people from this school with this degree? (2) What is the placement rate of people with this degree in either graduate school or a related field of employment? The numbers you get back, or the school’s failure to deliver them, should tell you a bit about the quality of the degree track. Really, I trust it more than any college ranking guide. Those numbers neither lie nor spin; they just give you a quantitative picture of reality.

10. Credits are a commodity, so buy low and sell high

Today’s secret word is“arbitrage.”Arbitrage is the nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or goods in different markets in order to profit from price discrepancies. What does this have to do with your education? Well, just as a stockbroker can arbitrage goods and services, you can arbitrage your academic credits by taking a class or classes at one school, where it is cheaper, easier, or of better quality, and move them to another.

The credits you can transfer will depend on the school, the course level, and program you are majoring in. Usually, only the credit is transferred, not the grade. This can be a good thing. Say you are academically challenged in math, which is “polite speak” for you keep failing it. Failing it at the school you attend is a big deal. Failure places you on academic probation, can harm your GPA, scholarships, etc.

Failing it at another school, except for the money and time lost, is comparatively inconsequential. Best of all, the school you are attending never has to know. You didn’t hear that from me.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine who teaches at a community college offers two prerequisites for a popular major. All of the students who know they are majoring in this field take her classes before leaving for their upper levels. However, students who are attending a university within driving distance also take her class. Why? It’s cheaper, it has about 120 fewer students, and quite frankly there is less useless busy work.

Going home for the summer? Why not bag a few courses at the junior college? They’re summer classes and it’s a junior college. How much work can it be? Do two classes each summer for three years, transfer those credits to your real school, and you can take the last half of your senior year off. If you are going to a private school, think of the savings.

However, there is also a downside. If you are a GPA junkie this will affect your overall GPA, because all that the school is accepting is your credit, not your grade, so they are like empty calories—like beer. If the class is related to your major, or the first of two sequenced classes, make sure you are going to learn enough to do well in the second part. Play it safe. Make sure the classes will transfer before you take them. The Internet has made this easy. Get the catalog off the school’s website, take it to your academic advisor, and check before you sign up. Get it in writing.