Where do I want my kids to go to college?

I have two daughters, and neither are anywhere near college age. We've not even made it to middle school yet. However, I spend a lot of time talking and writing about college admissions, so I get asked the same question often: where do I want my own kids to go to college?

I have a few favorites.

Deep Springs is in the middle of nowhere in California. The entire student body is only around 25-30 students. The college is free, except you're required to work manual labor on the school's cattle ranch for at least 20 hours per week--and you're rarely allowed to leave the ranch/campus. The academic curriculum centers around intense reading and discussion. It's only a two-year college, so you can't even get a bachelor's degree, but most students have no problem transferring to four-year universities when they're done. Perhaps the largest obstacle right now to either of my girls getting accepted to Deep Springs--even beyond the ridiculously high standard for SAT scores and all the admissions decisions made by students rather than faculty--is that the school currently doesn't accept women. They really want to, but some of their century-old founding grants are for a male-only school. Deep Springs is in years-long litigation trying to get the right to remain as they are and also admit women. Strangely enough, I first heard about Deep Springs from an article in Vanity Fair magazine.

St. John's College has two campuses, in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico. They only offer one undergraduate degree, a B.A. in Liberal Arts, so there aren't any majors or minors. The school is based around a "great books" curriculum that is heavy on reading and discussing quintessential texts in different fields. The school was founded in 1696, and it's still pretty much the blueprint for what we now think of as a small liberal arts college.

Olin College of Engineering is a very young school, founded in 1997. It's in the Boston area, and has around 350 students. The person who introduced me to it, a former student who went there, told me it has the vibe of a small liberal arts school...except all the students major in engineering. They also have access to classes and activities at nearby Babson College, Wellesley College, and Brandeis University

What do these three schools have in common? They're all very prestigious without being famous or in the Ivy League. They're all quite different from a "normal" university. They're quirky and demanding. They're small. 

But what else do they have in common? They have nothing to do with my daughters or what they may want. My top three schools for my little girls have everything to do with my own aspirations, insecurities, and prejudices. My daughters, when they get old enough, can ignore my wishes completely since my wishes are not centered on them. What I'm really saying when I name these three as dream schools is "when it gets down to it, colleges have a lot more in common than they have differences. Don't get too caught up in hype and marketing and top-ten lists. If you really want something different and impressive, look where other people aren't looking." I don't think that's bad advice, but I don't think it means my children need to spend too much time applying to any of these schools if they don't want. 

I bring this up because your family also probably has aspirations for where you go to college. It's quite common for parents to want you to go to the same school they attended, and there are plenty of families who have alumni in multiple generations. If you're parents want that for you, that's great. It means tradition and continuity and family unity are important to them. But it doesn't necessarily mean they've thought about what's best for you.

I've also seen plenty of students under pressure from their parents' vague hopes. "I just want my daughter to go to the best school she can" is something I've heard a lot, and it comes from great intentions. But it's often translated into an anxiety that your parents have really high expectations and they're testing you to see if you meet them. This isn't good or productive. The sooner you get a strong sense of what you're looking for, the sooner you can recruit your family into helping you search.

Aspirations are good. Rational decisions about college are good. Just watch out: they're not always the same.

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