I originally wrote this op-ed for the McClatchy-Tribune, and it has appeared in various newspapers over the last few days. I then read Arianna Huffington's new book, Thrive, which argues for a different "metric of success" -- something harder to quantify than traditional measures, but potentially much more fulfilling. Might there also be such metrics that would help one match up well with the college at which one would receive an education that would lead to lifelong learning?
Many of us were delighted by high school senior Kwasi Enin, who made the news recently when he was admitted to all eight Ivy League universities. He announced, with a great grin, that he would revisit the schools to find the best fit given his interests in music and medicine. He also wanted to compare their financial aid packages.
Kwasi's success story is a rarity, but his response is not. After the thick envelopes arrive at home (or, after you click on the happy web link that announces your acceptance), students have about a month to really think about what kind of school would help them grow as a person, what kind of school would best prepare them for the future, and at which school would they be happiest. And they also have to think about whether they can afford the school of their choice.
The Ivies, and most of the country's highly selective universities, promise to "meet full need" if you are accepted. That means that the colleges offer robust financial aid programs, and in recent years many have put a cap on required student loans. If household income isn't high enough to pay the otherwise steep tuition, these schools will waive all or a large part of their bills.
But how does one answer the other questions about which school is the best match? Some young people are attracted to large universities with intense school spirit and a dizzying array of offerings. But apart from the big parties and athletic rivalries, many of these institutions are focused on graduate work and research, with undergraduates being taught mostly by part-time instructors. Others are attracted to smaller, residential schools with discussion-based classes led by scholar-teachers. But some of these institutions will feel too confining or isolated for students who want a high-energy, urban experience.
Many students today seem to think they should pick the university at which they will acquire the credential that will land them the most highly paid job. This is a sad (and ultimately impractical) narrowing of what a college education should provide. Sure, one should leave college with the ability to compete for gainful employment. But that first job should be the worst job you'll ever have, and your undergraduate years should prepare you for more than just entry into the workforce.
Your college education should prepare you to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one's university years. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn't even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction. A strong college education, one infused with liberal learning, helps create what philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called "new spaces for diverse possibilities of flourishing."
Discovering these possibilities for flourishing is the opposite of trying to figure out how to conform to the world as it is. That's a losing proposition, not least because the world is changing so rapidly; tomorrow it won't be how it is today. When you flourish, you find ways of shaping change, not just ways of coping with it. Those who get the most out of college are often anti-conformists aiming to find out who they are and what kind of work they will find most meaningful. They are not ready simply to accept someone else's assignment. Those who get the most out of college expand the horizons in which they can lead a life of meaning and purpose.
These, I realize, may sound like awfully highfalutin' phrases to someone trying to decide big school or small school ... lots of requirements or open curriculum ... great campus social life or wonderful experience off-campus. And you do want to be able to compete successfully for that first job.
But your college choice isn't just about "fit" and "comfort"; it isn't just about the prestige of the school or the amenities it offers. Your college choice should reflect your aspirations, where you can imagine yourself discovering more about the world and your capacities to interact with it. The college you choose should be a place at which you can thrive, finding out so much more about yourself as you also discover how the world works, how to make meaning from it and how you might contribute to it.
I wish Kwasi well as he returns to visit those lovely campuses. I hope that he, and the many thousands of other students across the country making college decisions this month, will use their imaginations to envision how they might flourish in their college years in ways that will enrich and inform their lives for decades beyond the university.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, publishing in May by Yale University Press.