A message from Joe Runge, Director of College Counseling

In discussing what is a “good” college, my many years of selective undergraduate admissions and director of college counseling work has afforded me a unique view. Where many assume the best colleges in the United States have much to do with tip of the tongue familiarity (Ivy League, NESCAC colleges, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, University of Chicago, Georgetown and Notre Dame, to name just a few), my experience tells me to look past entry level selectivity (with which most college ready students/parents are obsessed…thank you US News and World Report) to other metrics significantly more important and useful.

It is always very important when you visit a college to not only sit for the information session and take the tour, but to schedule an appointment with someone who represents one of your institutional interests (a coach if you’re interested in athletics or a faculty member in the computer science department if that is your intended major). It is also inordinately important to schedule an appointment (if possible) with one of the counselors in the Career Planning and Placement Office to inquire about what opportunities exist for students after their time in college in order to fully measure institutional success. Those are truly the measures of institutional success.

What is a Good College?

Consider the following metrics that I believe are inordinately more useful and telling than frontend selectivity:
  • Is the college or university a Phi Beta Kappa school (see definition below)? PBK colleges and universities are considered the bellwether of academic excellence. This honors organization has been around since 1776 and only approximately 283 colleges in 241 years have qualified, less than 10% of all colleges in the United States. To have PBK consider a college’s application, a school has to be in the liberal arts and sciences model. Many specialty schools that do not qualify for PBK consideration have just as much credibility as PBK schools (e.g., RISD for art, Harvey Mudd and Cal Tech for STEM, or Julliard for music and theatre).
  • Rank in Class and Major. If one has a choice between and Ivy League school or Villanova, what is the eventual end goal? Is it better to be ranking in the bottom 5% in an Ivy League school upon graduation or be in the top 5% at Villanova and be included in the Honors program? When companies recruit students for entry-level jobs or seniors in college are applying to graduate school….what are they looking for? They are looking for the most competitive students in the senior class and afford them the first opportunities/jobs/high level graduate school admissions. It’s all rank in class and rank in major and what environment did one choose to compete within. This is not to say that if one is offered acceptance to an Ivy League or Ivy caliber school that one should not seriously consider this option. There are hundreds of wonderful and challenging colleges in the US and abroad that will meet your educational, social, and vocational goals.
  • Faculty Excellence. If you can’t get into an Ivy League school, why not be taught by Ivy League faculty? There is a surplus of newly minted Ph.D. graduates with the intention of teaching in a college or university setting in the United States at the moment. As there are only a handful of the “most selective” colleges (eight Ivy League institutions plus 15-20 other schools), where do these young men and women go to secure a teaching position? The faculty, with just a few exceptions, at the most selective schools does not often leave. They stay in their positions for almost their entire career, thus the opportunity to teach/research at this level is rare. There are few open opportunities. So where do many of the Ivy educated Ph.D. folks who want to teach go to find a job? They often venture where they can get a full time tenure track position, and that means at colleges all over the United States with a wide degree of front-end selectivity. You will find them at Stevens Institute of Technology, the University of Oklahoma, Pepperdine University, Rollins College, Florida State University, and almost any other institution in the United States. There are great faculty at every school in the United States… this is who you will be learning from and the quality of education you will receive. A good practice is to check faculty credentials department by department at any college of university in which you are interested.
  • Exit Oriented Issues. Most students and parents maneuvering through the secondary school process are focused, if not solely focused on “selectivity” in the undergraduate admissions process. Granted, it is a very proud moment when one receives his/her first of many (hopefully) acceptance letters. A collective sigh of relief ensues and ultimately one finds a new home for the following four years. What is stunningly apparent when one first steps on a college campus is the sense or immediacy and urgency in doing well to position for graduate school or a job in one’s proposed field of study. The competition is steep, jobs are hard to come by, and more and more students are graduating with significant student loan debt they cannot repay. In the undergraduate admissions process, one should pay attention to the following when determining if it is a “good” school:
    • What is the percent of students who graduate in four years? This goes to retention and how well a school monitors student achievement and keeps individuals on a competitive track to graduate. Most colleges use a 5 or 6-year graduate rate. I don’t think anyone desires to keep paying a 5th and 6th year of tuition and fees. Any percentage over 80% is outstanding.
    • What is the percent of students who have a job in their field of study by the time they graduate from college? Most colleges use the following phrase/statistic: “XY% of our students are employed 6 month after graduation.” The issue with this statement is two fold: one, why 6 months after graduation (after paying for four years of education, should one’s son or daughter have a job by graduation?); and two, the statistic never includes whether graduates have jobs in their field of study or if they are underemployed working in a field with no higher education requirement or outside their intended vocation.

Phi Beta Kappa (What is it?)

Definition: Five students at the College of William and Mary founded The Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1776, during the American Revolution. For more than two and a quarter centuries, the Society has embraced the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression.. This is the ultimate hallmark of academic distinction that a college or university can hold. Less than 300 of the 2,600 four-year colleges and universities in the United States can boast of being a member. It is Carrollwood Day School’s goal to have every student in each graduating class be admitted to at least one Phi Beta Kappa college or university.

Today, the Phi Beta Kappa Society celebrates and advocates excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. Phi Beta Kappa chapters invite for induction the most outstanding arts and sciences students at 283 leading U.S. colleges and universities. Each year, about one college senior in a hundred, nationwide, is invited to join The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Only about 10 percent of the nation's institutions of higher learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. And only about 10 percent of the arts and sciences graduates of these distinguished institutions are invited to join The Phi Beta Kappa Society, which makes the invitation process the most selective in the nation. The ideal Phi Beta Kappa member has demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests. 

Since the Society's founding in 1776, 17 U.S. Presidents, 39 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and more than 130 Nobel Laureates have been inducted as members, along with countless authors, diplomats, athletes, researchers, actors, and business leaders. 

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