I notice how some colleges are purposeful in their mission, forward thinking and innovative. Others seem to be stuck on their past laurels. It’s hard to know whether a particular college is visionary and fresh or whether it is riding on its ranking. I think it often comes back to the leadership of the college. Of course the endowment is something you can’t ignore. You need to try to understand where the college’s money is and how it is being spent. I spent the last five days immersed at Duke. My son is an entering freshman engineer. I was blown away. The commitment of the leadership from the top coffers to the academic deans in engineering exceeded all my (somewhat high) expectations. Each student is valued and invited into the fold. Research in leading labs starts before they even get on campus, if the student wants. The message is one of inclusivity and collaboration. But how do you as a parent or as a student KNOW what you are getting when you choose a college? I’m not sure there is an easy answer. We’ve been a part of the Duke Family for 35 years, and it’s just now that I feel comfortable that I know enough to send my son there. I don’t think we were nearly as informed when we sent our oldest son there. It’s an impossible feat but one that keeps me up at night. How can I provide this kind of insight for all my students at the varied landscape of colleges they love??? I think that students and parents can start by visiting the departments they think they might enter. Go the extra step to meet the professors, the heads of the departments, the administrative staff. Ask how classes are staying current. Ask why the course sequence is what it is. Ask what the graduates are doing in the years after graduation. Ask how undergrads contribute. Understand the layers of support– academic and emotional that students enjoy. You’ve got to find students to talk to and get a sense for what their real-time experience really is. Ask how they’ve been supported when a challenge came along. How is the university staying current in their STEM disciplines? How are they adapting with our global world and basic human needs?
I’m a HUGE fan of pre-orientation programs for students the summer before they matriculate. What is in place to help students transition to college the summer BEFORE they arrive? Is academic support readily available? It SHOULD be, and it’s a good indication of how the university views undergrads, IMHO.
I know I’m feeling the Duke love now, but I think there have been at least 5 established people at the university so far who have offered themselves up as mentors for my son– and classes don’t start until Monday. I’d say 2 have been students, 2 academic deans, and 1 professor. I’m just saying, when you are paying over $70,000 a pop, I think this is what you should get.
I do worry because I know that many students don’t have the luxury of choosing a college based on factors like this. But I reiterate my mantra. Students need to bring their best selves and make the most of the opportunities they find at their college. No excuses. You do, you be a part of, what your college does well. If your college doesn’t offer the intuitive support that I describe, then go seek it out. If you don’t have easy access to a lab, stand in line until they take you. If your college doesn’t meet you half way, walk closer to your solutions. Life is not perfect. No college is perfect. But look for the ideal, and at least know what you are getting and where you might have to work harder to make it great.
Here is a shot of Duke’s 3-D printing lab which is open to all students for work and fun. What I told Will is that Duke is not so much a place as it is an opportunity. If he waits for it to be laid out pretty for him on a serving platter, then he will have squandered his luck. He had already printed about 15 3-D objects for fun by the time we arrived to move him into the dorm. OK… opportunity well served. I slept well last night.