A few years ago, I was touring some colleges with two HS students. Girls who had exceptional academic credentials were well spoken, conservatively dressed, and beautiful. (Full disclosure: my daughter and niece.) We were touring through Pennsylvania and Western New York State, and had visited some extraordinarily beautiful campuses. Skidmore College, Colgate, Hamilton, Lehigh and Lafayette; then, we arrived at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Although, I would not say that RPI is a spectacular campus. It is clean, the buildings well kept, well supplied, updated. Their dorms are dorms: clean, functional, bright and well lit. The campus is ordinary, and the town a bit disheveled. However, what I learned on that afternoon changed the way I thought about colleges and the “college experience.”
We were late, breaking the cardinal rule of college visits: be early. We joined the tour as they began to enter the Houston Field House; Houston is an amazing facility- hockey rink, basketball court, concert arena all rolled into one. One could get lost in this building, and in fact, I did. I almost missed the part of the tour when our tour guide told us about the 2 million dollar annual budget for campus life and events. Apparently, Maroon 5 had been their campus concert in recent years. The tour guide went on to explain that the leaders of the University choose to invest in social programming on campus as community building experiences. They felt that by providing ample extracurricular options, their students could occasionally relax and reinvigorate, prepping themselves for the serious academic work around which their lives revolved. He then said something that amazed me. “As students we know we don’t have the best campus or the best town, but we do have the best community, or at least we think so. “
Which brings me to lesson number one on return on investment:Pick colleges that not only fully support your student’s academic needs, but their social and extracurricular ones.
You will pay quite a bit for your student to attend that college. Make sure that the money you are investing not only supports your child’s academic dreams, but fulfills outside interests and spends money to keep their community safe, entertained, and engaged. Happy students get better grades; happy graduates give money back to schools. It’s a win-win for all involved.
As we continued on in the tour, we went into one of the science buildings: an amazing facility with bright and airy labs, gathering spaces, and enough professional lab equipment to start a CDC or NASA satellite organization on campus. On the wall were recent publications from Professors. Underneath the professors names, published alongside the Ph.D., were the names of the undergraduate students who had participated in the studies as lab assistants and researchers. Our tour guide told us that students have great relationships with their professors and that in turn, the professors go out of their way to accelerate the learning of their charges. He told us that students think being smart is cool, and that the pursuit of new learning opportunities is something that is done on a daily basis throughout the campus: writing code, designing apps, working in labs, internships, summer jobs in STEM fields.
Which brings me to lesson number two on return on investment:The pursuit of education does not end at the classroom door. Developing a campus wide academic mindset works to benefit everyone.
An engaged academic community within your campus is paramount. Do Professors routinely meet with students when needed? Are their opportunities to work in academic settings outside of the classroom in research, study abroad, lectures, and internships? Does the campus do a great job of incorporating learning into the real, everyday world… in other words, is what you learning relevant and timely? Does the campus promote learning in all things?
We ended our tour back at the admissions office. We sat down with one of the admissions officers who told us that the day before he had learned that the last graduate for the prior year has “finally” been hired inside his field. “This means that every graduate from June is either in grad school or employed. And the average salary is in the high $60’s."* RPI graduation took place at the tail end of May that year. The day we visited was August 2nd. In two months’ time, they had 100% employment. It was an amazing statistic.
Which brings me to lesson number three on return on investment:Employment and employability are not dirty words.
College graduates tend to earn over a million dollars more than non-college graduates in their lifetime… but they can only do this if they find employment. No one chooses to spend $250,000 on a college education to become a barista at Starbucks. The goal of employability is not beneath the standards of academic achievement. They go hand in hand. Learning is important- so is paying a mortgage or rent. When families look at schools they should ask about the strongest programs, and then ask about employment statistics in that program amongst recent graduates. Being able to support yourself after college is a primary goal, not an added benefit to post-secondary education.
As we walked away campus, it was clear to me that something had fundamentally changed in the way I viewed a school- but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Rensselaer stuck with me more than any other school on that trip. Three years later, It is still one of my “go-to” school in my college admissions toolbox. I recommend the others I saw on that trip too, but not with the regularity of RPI. Why? Because it tries to transcend the traditional college, and succeeds. It is not the only campus like this, but it was the one that got me thinking- thinking about what an investment of tuition should mean, what it should buy you, how well your money is spent.
There are a few hundred schools like this in the US; schools that have bloomed where they have been planted, in rough soil, in cold weather. They have taken an average location or campus and turned it into an amazing place full of wonder.** Look for these hearty campuses on your next college trip. Look for the schools whose attitude and vision are so much more than new bathrooms and heated sidewalks. Look for schools that academically innovate, which generate community, which pique interests, which revel in discovery; because in those schools you will find an extraordinary return on your college tuition investment.
*(That is from $65,000- 69,000 a year for a college graduate with a BS)
** Dickinson College, Clark University, Luther College, Claremont McKenna, Southwestern University, Flagler College, Wooster PolyTech, Cal tech, ... to name a few.