Choosing the right college: getting to the heart of the matter

These are the best of times and the toughest of times for high-school seniors eager for college but anguished over which one they will attend.

Over the coming weeks, these students will have to weigh the pros and cons of what soon will be their home as well as their learning center for the next several years, and their parents will worry with them. High-school counselors will be in high demand. Private consultants may be hired to help with a decision that more and more seems to stir as much anxiety as a major medical decision.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. Nor should it be. Choosing a college should be an event of pure excitement, not high-grade stress — the excitement of possibility that will follow a student through four or more years of advanced learning, whichever school she selects.

My advice to students and families faced with the choice of an undergraduate college is to look beyond the hype, the numerical indices, the loud boasts of academic pedigree. Follow your intuition as much as your calculations. What matters most in the selection process is your feeling about a school based on your interests, passions and, most of all, your awareness of self.

No set of numbers or litany of accolades will determine the "best" college for a student. Of the nearly 3,000 accredited baccalaureate schools in the United States, most make good on their offer of an excellent education. In the end, it is the interior makeup of the student that will determine, in large measure, the quality of his educational experience.

Some of the myriad guidebooks to colleges can be useful, but the degree to which you rely on them in your decision is limiting and potentially risky. The key message in Loren Pope's book, "Colleges That Change Lives" — that there is much more to a college than rankings based on "inputs" such as test scores — is an important one to keep in mind.

The yardstick used in Washington Monthly magazine's guide to colleges is based on three criteria: how well they perform as "engines of social mobility," how vigorously they foster humanistic and scientific research, and how well they nurture "an ethic of service to country." These factors ought to be key considerations in your own selection process.

It is always constructive to learn that College A is dedicated to strong connections between students and faculty, and that University B offers supportive learning and living environments. It is also part of the discovery process to understand that most schools will claim these values as part of their core purpose.

More important are the specifics underlying the generalities: resources, ratio of students to faculty, teaching climate among faculty. Are faculty accessible? What are the opportunities for faculty-student collaborations?

In doing the requisite math to compare the cost of education at various schools, it is crucial to consider the corresponding value of an education at those schools. Rising tuition is a concern for parent, student and college administrator alike, but it is not the full picture. Scholarships, grants and other financial aid determine the actual cost of college. The core issue is what the bottom line will buy. Simply put, does the learning experience at a particular school seem worth the cost?

As important as all of these considerations are, they remain peripheral to the larger, essential investigation: a thorough self-examination by the student. Students need to put down their cellphones and start up an interior dialogue. They must ask, possibly for the first time in a deep, even sensory way, who on the inside they truly are, how best they learn and what they're willing to sacrifice in their thirst for challenging experiences and hunger for new knowledge.

The inquiry is crucial, for only then will a student know how to process the concomitant school-related questions. Is the learning atmosphere collaborative or competitive? (Do I prefer collaboration or competition?) Are values a part of the campus discussion? (What values are important to who I am and how I live?) How much room is there in that discussion for diverse points of view? (How do I feel about disagreement?)

In this context, the key to selecting a college seems obvious. If the process of elimination begins in the mind, the final decision should come from the heart.

George Bridges is president of Whitman College in Walla Walla.