A cheery report was released this week that shows that college students, in general, aren’t learning in college. The study, which covered more than 2,300 undergrad students, discovered that 45 percent of them displayed no significant increases in writing, complex reasoning, or critical thinking. Like I said, cheery. But these stats, as headline-grabbing as they are, mask the complexities beneath them.

The truth is, colleges and universities vary as much from one another as McDonalds and Wolfgang Pucks. It’s a whole industry, with great organizations and bad ones. You can still get a great college education … if you get into the right school.

Luckily, this study tells what qualities to look for in a great school and which ones to avoid. Here are five things to look for in your college:

1. Selective admissions

studying hardThe study found that students at schools with rigorous admissions processes tended to post greater leaning gains. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you actually have to work hard to get into a school (score high on the SAT, write essays, get letters of recommendation, etc.), you tend to value the opportunity more. In turn, you study harder.

A great by-product of this phenomenon is that you also get to study with other similarly hardworking individuals. And those traits tend to rub off. If you’re looking for a great school, look for a school that people will give an arm and a leg to attend. That’s usually a pretty good sign.

2. Dead social scene

Surprise, surprise! Schools where students spend lots of time socializing don’t do so hot in the learning department, the study says. On the other hand, students who hit the books alone got a lot more out of their college experience than their more social counterparts.

3. Heavy reading and writing

Another groundbreaker. Schools who require students to read and write more… wait for it… revolutionary idea incoming… report better student learning. I know. My head hurts, too. Anyone who has ever done well in school will agree that the basis of doing well academically is spending lots of time in the books. There’s no replacement for it.

Sadly, the study found that a third of students didn’t take any courses that required them to read even 40 pages per week. Half of students interviewed didn’t take any courses requiring them to write even 20 pages during the course of a semester. Warning: avoid these schools and students at all costs!

This may be a hard pill to swallow, but you want to go to a tough school. You want a school that will actually force you to do something outside of your comfort zone. Otherwise, you’re not getting your money’s worth.

4. Arts and science majors

Students in traditional arts and science majors showed far better learning gains. That’s right—the classics. Part of this may have to do with the heavier reading and writing loads in these traditional majors.

5. No Greek system

fraternities sororities bad for studiesHard to believe as it is, fraternities and sororities actually hamper student learning. Hazing and debauchery aside, the Greek system means a sizeable time commitment for their members. One could argue that they offer great networking opportunities, but let’s keep on topic—we’re talking learning here. Time is a limited resource, as any embattled undergrad will tell you during finals. For every minute you have to spend dealing with fraternity stuff, you have less time to actually learn.

Disclaimer: this author would be the first to acknowledge that socializing is absolutely necessary to keeping one’s sanity during the college experience, especially at hard-working, competitive colleges.

However, I also can’t ignore the purpose for which we all really go to college: to learn. I know, booooring.

Don’t let yourself become a statistic. Find a school that will actually teach you, not just show you a good time. Ideally, you’ll find a school that does both.

One comment on “5 Ways to Identify a Great College

  • Honestly, I don’t agree with all those items. Just because a college is selective, it doesn’t mean the quality of the education is. Take Harvard for instance. My daughter went to college in Boston and the Harvard students used to tell her the hardest part about Harvard was getting in. Also, I don’t think you can deduce from this sampling that Greek life is the cause of lack of learning either. I think, when it comes right down to it, it’s what the student puts into their education just as much as what the college gives them. If they are invested, they will learn. If they are there to party, the lack of a social scene won’t hinder that. Interesting study, but in my opinion, flawed.

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