Over the years, I have had many conversations with parents regarding the college selection process for their sons. In this letter, I have tried to summarize the advice that I have given to them.
Few decisions will affect an eighteen-year-old man as much as his college choice. The years as an undergraduate, and the major financial investment they entail, should reward him with a thorough education, professional training, and an opportunity for personal growth. Since not every college will automatically provide these benefits, a high school senior, and his parents, ought to consider several factors when choosing his college. Some of these factors deal with the college itself – its academic program, professional training, the presence of both an academic mentor, and a support system – but the most important ones have to do with the student himself: his attitude and his habits.
Your son will ideally look at college as a crucial preparation time for a life of service to God and others. As a result, all other factors being equal, he ought to seek a college that will best position him to have the greatest possible impact in society. Within his disposition and ability, your son should be guiding society rather than merely fighting it, and so he needs a degree that will propel him into societal prominence. But all other factors are never equal, and therefore the college decision must take those factors into consideration.
When composing a list of schools, your son should determine what exactly he wants to get out of college. Traditionally, college or university is the place to study the liberal arts and thus expands what one understands of reality and appreciation for it. The ideal liberal arts graduate is not the dreamy poet, but the educated gentleman who can gracefully shape the world because he knows its purpose. But in recent times, college has replaced the trade school in preparing the young for a particular profession, and so many students currently attend college merely as an avenue to employment. Given this situation, the student should be clear as to what type of education or training he is looking for, so that he can choose a college that best serves his purpose.
A student pursuing a traditional college education should look for a school that offers a liberal arts curriculum, whose professors teach the great classical works, one that attracts students who passionately discuss such works, and that offers a campus conducive to contemplation of the true and the beautiful. If, on the other hand, a student wants a professional degree – business of any type, engineering, economics, computers, and the like – then he needs a school with a curriculum designed to train its students for that trade, that offers the internship opportunities to make the training practical, that provides the networking contacts to open up future job opportunities, and a degree primarily intended to open doors. Pursuing the liberal arts is not incompatible with pre-professional training.
As a matter of fact, the Liberal Arts, besides opening the mind and enlarging the soul, offer the best professional preparation possible. A man endowed with a liberal education will understand that his moral life is interwoven with his professional life. He will also have developed the habits of mind – analytical reasoning, writing and speaking skills – to successfully pursue any career. The wise man will be the better professional. At the same time, most people will need to learn a professional trade at some point, and some ought to do that at the college level. Most others will receive their actual learning of their trade at the graduate level or in-the-job training.
But in any case, the greatest difficulty often resides in knowing how to get the desired education at the many colleges that have it available, but that have not systematized a way for students to acquire it while in their charge. In the absence of comprehensive core curriculums, it is unclear how a student is to pick the right classes when confronted with myriad choices, the quality of many depending on the particular professor teaching the class or the particular section of a class. Consequently, unless the college provides an all-encompassing academic system which offers the education you believe your son should have, then finding an academic mentor who will guide your son’s academic choices is indispensable to his education.
The academic mentor will enhance your son’s educational experience, but the mentor’s reach will not extend beyond the selection of the right classes and academic opportunities. Since every college student will eventually join the professional ranks, it matters how the four years of college will prepare him for the rigor of professional life. Getting up late, missing class, sleeping during the day, getting used to mediocre work, and wasting loads of time are hardly the right training for a life of productive work. Four such years may fully erode any work habit your son has accumulated under your supervision for the first eighteen years of his life. Since dealing with the unstructured nature of their time in college offers a major challenge to many students, a partial solution is to rely on some external force that will add structure to their day: a part-time job, ROTC, participation in competitive sports, are all examples of how this could be accomplished.
But just as your son needs a mentor to navigate his academic choices, he also needs a support system to help him with all other aspects of his personal growth while in college. He will need you, or a relative, or a family friend, or a religious or social group that exercises a positive influence on him to keep him grounded. This support system should not only aid your son in developing good work habits, but also encourage his personal growth as a Christian man. Remember that most colleges throw together thousands of eighteen to twenty-two year olds in close quarters with often unlimited access to alcohol and drugs. It should be no mystery how that human cocktail typically ends up. There are some colleges that have a natural social scene where students with various interests and passions can come together for mutual enjoyment and growth in friendship. But, there are many other colleges where social life almost exclusively revolves around the
fraternity keg scene. Instead of allowing for the growth of healthy passion amidst friends, these schools unleash the darker passions of the youth to the detriment of friendship – and so, many college students can feel lonely and isolated in the middle of hundreds of loudly intoxicated peers.
The erratic lifestyles on these college campuses can sow seeds of self-doubt even among the young men with the most common sense and make them wonder whether their lives up to then have been unhealthily sheltered and so should be abandoned for the college world. There is also the myth that whatever you do in college stays in college. That no matter what mistakes you make, those mistakes will not accompany you once you get your diploma and leave the campus behind. The myth ignores the reality that if one cuts off his finger while in college, the finger does not grow back after graduation. For the rest of his life, your son will enjoy the virtues and battle the vices he will develop during college. College is not a last chance to be wild and make mistakes. The goal is learning, not merely experiencing, for not every experience is worth having. The support system is there to help your son remember that Natural Law and the moral code do not change, nor are they suspended, while in college.
But most likely, the crucial factors to consider when deciding what college to attend do not lie with the colleges, but with the student, for his attitude and habits will affect the success of his college investment most.
Your son’s attitude plays a crucial role in his benefitting from his college years. His desire to learn, and his sincere passion for academic excellence and professional training are necessary qualities for him to benefit from the education any college could impart. More importantly, he will seek the advice of an academic mentor and the aid of a support system if he is humble enough to know and admit that he needs help. As a parent, you must ask yourself whether your son has the maturity to seek that help. If he has the inner drive to learn, the humility to know his limitations, the awareness of the college environment, and the maturity to seek help, then he is ready to go away to just about any college in the country – as long as the mentoring and support are there. But if he lacks such qualities, then the unprotected college lifestyle would be at best useless, and at worst detrimental to his GPA, his liver, his brain, and his soul.
Together with his attitude, your son’s habits will determine his college success or lack thereof. Is he self-motivated enough to get out of bed and study on his own? Is he ordered and organized? Does he keep his room clean, his bed made, and his possessions in good order? Does he make his own schedule, and is he able to follow it fairly well? A college student with such habits is more likely to do well when suddenly immersed in an educational environment that is mostly unstructured and in which he is supposed to be on his own in every aspect of life. Most importantly, does your son have the moral habits that will keep him growing as a person rather than falling into a semi-bestial state? His support system becomes increasingly necessary as the internal habits of prudence, order, and industriousness are less developed.
Finally, your son will need a habit of good friendship whereby he naturally surrounds himself with peers who make him better and whose characters he also improves. He will then be attracted to those kinds of classmates during his first year, and therefore he will be more likely to make good life-long friends. If, on the contrary, he has a knack for finding the friend who brings the worst out of him, then he will need additional help from his support system in navigating the college social circles early on.
Choosing a college or university is an important decision you and your son will make. It is a serious investment of time, money, and effort that potentially may yield great personal and professional benefits. It is then prudent to consider the various factors that ought to go into making the college choice. Before a choice has to be made, and even from an early age, it is wise to help your sons develop the personal habits and virtues that will increase the certainty of good returns on the investment. Your sons will then be in a position to obtain more than a college diploma: an education, professional preparation, and a personal endowment for a happy and meaningful life.
Alvaro J. de Vicente