The Value of an 'Elite' College: Connections

I do believe that connections are what an elite private college education is all about -- but it's more than social networking.
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There are lots of ways to earn a college degree these days -- and the price tag varies more than ten-fold depending on the choice. Community colleges offer a great value for vocational and basic liberal arts classes -- and for most students, they can live at home, which counts as additional savings. State universities, even with their government support dwindling, are still quite affordable. Proprietary schools offer laser-focused and fast-track training that can demonstrate concrete job skills and leads. And online options such as MOOCS can allow the motivated to be independent learners, exposed to some of the best minds in the world without paying a dime.

And then there are the expensive, elite private colleges. The bill for four years of this experience is easily a quarter of a million dollars. The conventional wisdom regarding this choice is that it's where rich kids -- and the token few exceptionally bright scholarship recipients -- meet their mates and future business partners who come from similar backgrounds. "It's not about what you know but who you know," people say. I don't underestimate the partial truth or the worth of that. But if this is all it's about, parents could just give their kids memberships to a few country clubs take off on some expensive vacations hoping to meet the right people who will hire (or marry) little Johnny and Susie.

I do believe that connections are what an elite private college education is all about -- but it's more than social networking.

A four-year residential college education helps students connect the dots. It's not just about marching through a Chinese menu of courses in various distribution categories, checking off requirements. In the best schools, there are many ways in which students learn to connect ideas and leverage divergent ways of thinking and solving problems. For example, at Ithaca College, we're launching an integrated core curriculum through which students take four courses in different disciplines on a particular theme such as sustainability or mind, body and spirit and create an e-portfolio showing how they've synthesized tools, techniques, and ideas to solve problems. At small colleges, it's much easier and more likely that students get involved in clubs and leadership opportunities where they put learning into practice. And just living in dorms -- especially where there are trained staff and resident assistants and even faculty associates -- provides a rich opportunity for experiential learning.

In elite colleges, classes are small. Students are individually known to professors and to their peers. This forms a support group, and provides opportunities for role modeling not found in huge lecture halls. Students find their own voice -- they're called on and forced to take a stand and articulate their thoughts. Other students are also talented and motivated -- they're not just rich kids but rather today in elite colleges they are more likely characterized by their drive than their parents' tax return.

Finally, smaller colleges that have strong reputations have similarly robust alumni relationships. People are proud to have graduated from their institution and find it an honor to come back to speak and network with students. The common bond of having studied at the same campus or even with the same professor is a huge advantage when students are looking for internships or jobs with alums. We hear from decades of communications students that saying "I'm from Ithaca" has opened many door -- and hearts.

In this crazy world of information overload, rapid change, and uncertain economies, the only thing that sets people apart is their ability to make all kinds of connections -- otherwise everything is just random. Those connections are what make us human -- and make us more valuable as colleagues, citizens, mates, and parents.

Should college ratings have a new metric: connections?

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