Tenth and final in a series on what to look for in college.
In August 1975, I started teaching at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. After 45 years of service to students in universities, I thought I knew something. In January 2017, I began visiting high schools in the Texas Panhandle. I visited 66 by May 2017, and I felt like I learned a great deal. After a hiatus, in September 2019, I began a similar journey on the South Plains of Texas. Again, I visited 66 schools in five months. These two treks to 132 high schools, nearly 20,000 students, and 16,000 miles of road proved to me that I knew very little. This is what I think students should look for now when considering college, but take it with a grain of salt.
Become part of something larger than yourself. When looking for a university, the power of a family-like organization is critical to a well-functioning study setting, whether on campus, online, traditional, transfer, or returning student. The costs of study, academic reputation, the quality of the faculty, student clubs and organizations, potential for scholarships and other recognitions of achievement and a winning football or volleyball program may all be important considerations. However, if you don’t believe you will become part of something larger than yourself, put the campus in the rear-view mirror or click out as quickly as you can.
Understand stewardship. If visiting a college campus and you see indicators of a lack of stewardship of any kind, from cleanliness of the restrooms to utilization of increasingly scarce resources—state funding, tuition and fee dollars, gifts, grants and other means of material support, look elsewhere. The same can be said regarding websites that promise much. It can be a mirage. Go where history shows resources are carefully calibrated.
Good teaching and leadership are integrated. There is no border between these two. Teaching always requires that a vision be cast. Leading requires the same. No excuses, no lack of funding, no challenge with unprepared students and no placing of blame elsewhere absolve the teacher from being a leader and the leader from teaching. Effective teaching and leadership allow no borders between. Without an obvious commitment to excellent teaching and leadership, skip the free lunch or trinkets offered.
Noble citizenship is the goal of all education at every level from pre-k to post-doc. People passionately helping other people is the only salient purpose of public education. It is Jeffersonian democracy at work in the community. Students who emerge from places like the dozens of smaller high schools I visited should seek a university that values the same principle—citizenship as a guiding light.
Thinking and doing are of equal value. Places where you can help build a free society and contribute to a university’s sustenance with a clear and concise focus for liberty, passion and community purpose make a shared universe and a good university work. If you sense on campus a dismissiveness regarding trades, vocations and knowledge applied to some necessary and useful task, leave. They are not as smart as they want you to think.
Family life and family structure are critical for a free and strong society. Understand whether or not the institution values the social and economic importance of family—families are first. If not, move on.
The politics of people should rule, not the politics of process. The can’t-hide-in-the-shadows, face-to-face contact demanded in smaller schools, driven by local forces and real people, may be the most important factor in determining educational quality. People are always first. Processes exist for people; people don’t exist for processes. Only consider study options that put people first.
Any university should be proud of the place in which it exists. If you visit a college campus and the people on the campus don’t appear to appreciate the place, have a commitment to it, know something of its history and its citizens, and demonstrate pride in being there, leave immediately.
Seek to understand the value proposition the university provides. Any leader in any walk of life who tells any potential student that borrowing without qualification is okay displays ignorance and should not be trusted. Understand the relationship between the value of the degree, the cost of the degree, and the fulfillment it brings. These three are knotted together. Too many people in too many places for too many purposes tell students and parents, “Whatever the cost of the degree, it is worth it. It will all work out.” It’s a lie, and unless those individuals will cosign the note, it’s disingenuous. Get out while the “gettin’ out is good.”
I hope these insights have some value as you make a decision that is probably the third most important one you will ever make. They are the best I have to offer.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.