College Decision Time: Prestige vs Location

It’s college decision season. My daughter is still waiting to hear from 2 schools, but has already been accepted by 3 (with 1 rejection and 1 wait list). The two remaining are reaches (including 1 Ivy), so they are not terribly likely to figure into her decisions (though anything is possible). Of the 3 acceptances, only 2 are currently on the table.

Choice 1 is a major research university, high prestige, slightly below the Ivies in selectivity, but in a mid-size, economically challenged, midwestern city. Wife and self (and my sister, brother-in-law, and first cousin) went there, and it’s a terrific school. Great opportunities, supportive environment, somewhat insular campus. Purely on the numbers, she’d be right in the middle of the pack academically (though I think she’s brilliant).

Choice 2 is also a well-known university, but much less selective. She’d be in the top quarter (maybe top 10%) academically. Big difference is that it’s in a major east coast city, so the opportunities for internships, culture, intellectual stimulation outside of campus, etc, are probably greater, but she may not be as intellectually challenged by her peers.

So, Teeming Millions, what’s your opinion on the balance between a great school in an ok location, and an ok school in a great location? I know there are other factors, but this is a major part of the decision making process for her.

What are the job placement stats in her field?

Which one (if either) is best at furthering what she really wants to do?

You assume she’s picked one. :wink: She’s pretty serious in wanting to study history, political science, and economics, with the aim of working in journalism or possibly law.

Overall, both schools have very good job placement records. Choice 1 might have slightly better stats on grad school admissions, though it’s really hard to do apples-to-apples comparisons.

That’s the thing. They’re both very good. But we’re wondering if the networking opportunities external to the east coast school outweigh those internal to the prestige school in the midwest.

Take the one with better networking/internship opportunities and encourage her to make use of every internship opportunity that looks interesting in addition to using career services and making good relationships with her professors and internship supervisors. I finished grad school in 2009 during a rough market for my field and having good working relationships with professors and internship supervisors helped me land a job slightly faster than average for my industry cohort.

She may stick with one major, or she may change her major once or more, so there’s no guarantees that choosing a school that’s at the top for her current interests will guarantee that she ends up with a degree from one of the best schools that offer that degree. What does matter to lots of employers (and grad school admissions boards) is seeing that she’s got experience and has worked toward being employable in her field.

Which one will leave her in less debt? Particularly if she’s going to take on additional debt with an advanced degree?

I think a big part of this question is what would she find the most rewarding? Is she the kind of person who would enjoy the campus environment at a more insular school? After all, this is likely the only time in one’s life when one can really DO college stuff on a college campus, whatever that means to her (join a sorority, get involved with college radio, participate in Mock Trial, perform with the marching band, etc.).

Is she the kind of person who is motivated enough to take advantage of all the external opportunities at a school located in major city? This is the type of college I work at, and let me tell you, even though our students talk about this as a factor in their decision-making, once they enroll there’s a much smaller number who actually engage the external environment in a way that is a benefit to them. And those students do very well. Some of our other students have every intention of going out into the city (I don’t mean walking around in the city, I mean really being willing to put themselves in the position of being “just another person” at a job, community service activity, local theater audition, etc.) but simply don’t have the maturity level yet. Good schools in large cities will have strong connections with the community at large and help guide students, but essentially it comes down to the eagerness and resilience of the individual student.

Colleges in big cities operate on a lot of different models, too. Some are like boot camp, you get the basics and then they push you out into the urban environment to fend for yourself. Others like to pretend they are isolated campuses in the midwest, and create a campus environment that ignores the city around them. So the school’s approach to what they expect from students should be factored in.

Anyway, I don’t think it is so much a matter of “advantage” as it is a “fit” issue. A good “fit” for your student will make her happier and more productive in college, and that is going to be the advantage in the end game.

Not an issue. She is in the very fortunate position that she will be able to get away with only subsidized loans (~$5k/yr) in both places. (Merit money at Choice 2 will make that cheaper overall, but it’s covered either way.)

Which one does she like best and is most likely to fit in to, taking in to mind the general mood on campus, student life, campus size, student organizations, political leanings, etc.? What about programs? Which school is more likely to have events and supports for the wonky stuff she is in to? Which region is she more excited about- the East Coast and Midwest are pretty culturally different? Is she a city girl, or does she thrive in a more community-like environment?

Between two universities in the same general range, it’s these differences that matter far more than rankings. Outside of a handful of schools, no school is going to give you an instant job or grad school admit. Indeed, as more and more people get advanced degrees, ones undergrad is becoming less and less important, and it seems like the general direction she is headed is one where a lot of people go on to higher degrees. Prestige really isn’t as big of a deal as it is made out to be.

But what does happen often is students- even good students- get lost, aimless, or misdirected and drop out. This is the big thing she will want to avoid right now. You want her to be where she will thrive the most. So choose the school she finds most appealing. Students who are a “good fit” for a campus will be able to make the most of every opportunity, while students who are a fish out of water will have trouble even when every support is there. And make sure you have a realistic concept of what opportunities she is going to be able to take advantage of. Some students go to college and discover that big cities have great internships, others discover that big cities have great bars. In any case, nobody is going to take advantage of any opportunities when they are not in the right environment they need to grow and thrive.

So, which one makes her heart go boom-boom? That’s the one she should go to.

Got to second this. Is one going to be cheaper than the other either through a lower price tag or more scholarship?(I personally wouldn’t give a s**t about loans since in the end you’re paying if you take a loan a student loans can be huge.) Also is there anything in the gen-ed requirements that would be a turn off? (I know I’m harping AGAIN here but if I knew how much of a train-wreck the foreign lang requirement part of the gen-ed requirements would be for me I would have never picked that hell-hole of a university I actually did pick. Well that and the fact of how little support I actually got and then charging me up the wazoo for the privilege. Scumbags, the lot of them. Yes, I’m bitter.)

Yes to all of this (ETA: and to what evensven said). I’d also add that the most prestigious schools are not always the ones that provide the best educational experience at the undergraduate level (although they can be – it depends on the university involved and also, probably, what the individual student is looking for). There are a lot of factors that don’t correlate all that closely with the university’s selectivity – class size, whether the intro-level courses are being taught by faculty or grad students, whether it’s more of a lecture or a seminar culture, how much the school emphasizes undergraduate research, etc. And there are real advantages to having peers who challenge you, but there are also advantages to being the kind of student who stands out of the pack at a middle-of-the-road school where faculty notice those students. It all depends on what kind of experience she’s looking for.

Some people don’t mind being in the middle of the pack, especially if that’s where they’ve always been.

It can be unsettling for some students, though, to go from top of the pack to the middle.

The economy has caused a lot of smart kids to stay local and go public. So if she goes with the second choice, she’ll likely still have plenty of good company. And she’ll benefit being around people who aren’t quite so ultra competitive and anxious about being the best at everything!

In college you start to specialize, so middle of the pack over all classes might translate into top 10% for something you really love.
Is she the type who can assert herself by scheduling meetings with professors? If so, the school with the top people in the fields she is interested in is best, because the best thing you can get out of college is interaction with this kind of person outside the classroom. If she is the type who would rather just go to classes, it won’t matter so much.
One other thing to consider - many companies are limiting recruiting to a select set of schools, so it is much easier to find a job if you are in one of these. I can interview people from schools not on our list, but it is a big pain and I can only do it since I have lots of connections. Most hiring managers never talk to anyone not going to a school in the list.

One other thing to consider - many companies are limiting recruiting to a select set of schools, so it is much easier to find a job if you are in one of these. I can interview people from schools not on our list, but it is a big pain and I can only do it since I have lots of connections. Most hiring managers never talk to anyone not going to a school in the list.[/QUOTE]

Building on this: any chance of getting into the honors program of the less-well known school? Recruiting is sometimes done straight out of honors programs. For example, at the University of Texas, students in the (very competitive) Business Honors Program have incredible opportunities that just aren’t there for the regular business school kids.

Unfortunately, law vs journalism suggest really different priorities. For law school, grades really matter. A huge chunk of the admissions game is just the intersection of your GPA and your LSAT: they give you your range, basically, and other things just move you to the top or bottom of that. If a kid is serious about law school (or med school), they shouldn’t let anything come before grades, and “Which school can I get a 4.0 at?” is an important question. For someone who wants to work as a journalist, however, that logic doesn’t hold at all: if you want to be a journalist, it’d be stupid to turn down an internship (or a second internship) because your grades will take a hit. Working 40 hours a week in your field and graduating with a 3.0, or even a 2.5 is better than a technical 4.0 and no experience.

One other thing: don’t assume a good grad school in a subject means they have a good undergrad school in that same area. Sometimes have a constellation of brilliant grad students to work with means that the professors are less involved with the undergrads.

Lot of great comments and questions here, and useful things to think about. A few followups:

She is an extremely outgoing and driven kid. On one school visit, she sat in on an history seminar and jumped right into the discussion (this was Spring Break of her junior year in HS). On another (at the Ivy she probably won’t get into), she raised her hand to answer one of the prof’s questions, when none of the other students would. I’m not at all worried that she won’t take advantage of every opportunity to interact with faculty. She is very much not like me on this front (takes more after my wife, but way more intense).

She has been invited to join the honors college at Choice 2. Choice 1 doesn’t have one, since their student body is essentially all honors students.

Law and journalism aren’t really the only choices, but her passion in high school has been for those things. She has been co-editor-in-chief of her school newspaper this year, and has also been an attorney on their mock trial team for the past 3 years (the school didn’t have a team her freshman year). Mostly, she wants to study history, but she’s curious about everything. Who knows what her career choice will ultimately be?

Anyway, since we’re on Spring Break, Wife and Daughter will be flying to visit Choice 2 in a couple of days, since it’s the only campus she hasn’t seen yet. I don’t think there’s a bad choice here. It might just come down to her own gut check.

Is there a reason you haven’t just named the two schools? I would think it would allow for specific insight, and much better advice and/or first-hand experience.

IMO-Go to the better school, she can move to an environment that suits her, but she needs the education first.

Seemed better to get some general opinions about weighing two different types of school, rather than the two specific ones. At this point, though, I guess I’m open to specifics. The two are WashU in St Louis and American in DC. She’s still waiting to hear from Emory (maybe a 50/50 chance) and Brown (very slim chance).

Ha. I called Wash U from the description, but not American. IME, people love or hate Wash U: American doesn’t engender that kind of passion. Wash U willl be very different from when you went there: as the Ivys get more and more selective, Wash U has become more intense, and perhaps more bitter. A very good college counselor I know described it at as a “meat grinder”. Interesting point of fact: if Wash U thought your daughter might get into Brown, they would have wait-listed her. They are notorious for wait-listing kids that are capable of getting into “better” schools so as to keep their yield high. Which means that these days, there are very few very good kids who went to Wash U because they wanted to: they went there because they are the type of kid to have ambitions, but they didn’t make it. There are still people who love it, but if she didn’t find it exciting when she went there, then I would cross it off the list.

From the description of your daughter, I think the honors program at American is a very good choice. There will be chances to take classes from some pretty interesting people, in the honors program she will be given individual attention, and there will be some very interesting internships available. American is “good enough” that I honestly don’t think the slightly higher selectivity of Wash U will really make that big of a difference.

Also, she might look to see who has a better Mock Trial team, if she wants to keep that up. College Mock Trial is still a thing, and I had one student (at Brown, actually) who was a high school star and did it all the way through. He had a blast.