The first rule of college shopping for students and their parents is: Have a good idea what you want to buy.

Too many students don’t have a clue. Others know precisely what skills they need to develop, and what knowledge areas they want to study. Some who don’t know take time off, a “gap year” or two, to discover their interests. Others join the military to help the discovery process along.

Unfortunately they are the exceptions. Too many students start college before they ask some critical questions about what they want from college. In particular, several questions must be asked, and answered, to avoid what I call “dumb college shopping.”

The first question is a follow-on question to the ubiquitous query: why are you going to college? The knee jerk retort is, of course, to “get educated.” But what does that mean? To answer you need to ask a more fundamental question: What are the elements of learning? In an earlier book of mine, I identified nine elements of learning. They include:

  • Learning how to think, in terms of critical thinking, conceptual thinking, and scientific thinking.
  • Learning how to think creatively, how to synthesize facts and ideas, to go beyond traditional or linear thinking.
  • Learning how to speak well in a variety of situations and forums.
  • Learning how to write well.
  • Learning how to compute well.
  • Learning how to act ethically and to build strength of character.
  • Learning how to learn—and, ideally, “learn how to love learning for itself.”
  • Learning how to re-invent oneself periodically, given today’s longer lifetimes and rapid change.
  • Learning how to participate as an informed citizen in an evolving democracy that exists increasingly in an interdependent world.

All colleges should do a superior job teaching these nine elements. The reality is some colleges and universities are better than others.

I realize how difficult answering this question is for many 18 year olds. Broad or general responses don’t help much. For instance, “My son likes science” or “My daughter likes business.” You need to drill down. What specific kind of science...chemistry, physics, biology, geology. What particular kind of, marketing, human resource management, entrepreneurship, etc.

Again, if the answer is, “I have no clue,” you need to move cautiously and find a way to find some answers, lest you end of spending thousands on a short college career that ends as a drop-out after year one...or worse, you spend tens of thousands as a student who simply “treads water” for four years without truly being educated.

The benefits are massive when you can answer these questions with some specificity. You will discover the search process becomes easier. The likelihood of finding a fabulous department that’s world class skyrockets when you know what you want to buy. The big surprise is you may find a great department in a less expensive college. Notice I said “department”...not college or university. Because when all is said and done, you aren’t buying a university. You are buying access to a handful of stellar teachers who will hopefully change your life... at a reasonable price...and without the need to transfer. Smart college shopping begins with knowing what you want to buy.


Robert Ronstadt, PhD, is a former vice president of Boston University. He advises parents and students about finding, selecting, and paying for college. Contact him at 603-998-4364 or to learn more about how he can help you save money, limit college loans, and reduce stress.

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