Oh the places you'll go
I remember sitting in front of a room of some of Kansas City's best and brightest high schoolers on a Saturday morning a few weeks back. I had just finished my introductory lesson in a four-part lecture series that I developed for the UMKC School of Medicine outreach program. We finished a little earlier than I anticipated, so in order to make most of the time now afforded, I decided to open the floor for questions. One of the first questions I was asked, as I'm sure many high schoolers across the nation are asking every year, was how I decided where to go to college, and subsequently how I might recommend my students approach this question.
On the surface, my answer was straightforward: know what you want, know why you want it, and know how each desire compares to one another.
I'll start with my story. I began with the notion of that I didn't want to send out a million college applications - had to start somewhere. As such, I separated out all of my competing institutions into three categories: Dream School, Practical School, and Safe School. Each category would get only one representative, and depending on future factors like cost/benefit analytics, I'd choose between the three. My dream school was Brown University. I was already being recruited by the university for athletics, I had friends that attended there, and of course, Brown had all the Ivy League glory. I chose the University of Idaho as my practical school. As a cellist I was in contact with the school of music there in Moscow and the Professor, Dr. Miranda Wilson, was willing to do what she could to make sure I could attend and succeed, which was instrumental in making me feel comfortable with my final decision. Finally, my backup school was University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The Alaska University system isn't exactly the flashiest or most prestigious, but as an in-state student at UA, it's a nice safe fall-back institution. When it came down to picking between the three, I chose the University of Idaho. UI had the edge on UAF in terms of academics, and it was going to be significantly cheaper than what my high school GPA could get me for going to Brown.
Looking back now, knowing what I know from being in the University environment for a multitude of years, Here's what I think is worth considering in regard to this discussion: I find these suggestions apply to both the Undergraduate and Graduate Level.
From a coursework perspective, it's of my opinion that it really does not matter where you go. This is especially true at the Undergraduate Level. You're going to learn Physical Chemistry at Idaho almost the same way you'll learn Physical Chemistry at Brown. The same is the case for Organic, Analytical, Calculus, Numerical Methods, et al.
Khan Academy isn't institutionally selective.
If you're wanting to do research, there are two conversations that are prevalent: which universities have the availability, and which universities have both equipment and funding. Big private universities and R1 public research universities (R1 is a research level classification published by Carnegie Mellon, on a scale of 1-3 in terms of research activity) will have all the equipment and funding your heart can long for, but getting a research spot at these institutions will be challenging. On the other hand, smaller Primary Undergraduate Institutions (PUI's) and R3 universities may have more availability in terms of professors to work for, but the work you do there might not be the quality that's required to publish in the notable research journals, or present at the national conferences. Taking these factors into consideration really is a function of how you can present yourself as a valuable team member to your professors, but for the conservative play, consider a university that fits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. For your consideration, both the University of Idaho and the University of Missouri-Kansas City are R2 classified.
Another important factor to consider is cost-benefit analysis. No matter the prestige of the Ivy Leagues, going to Brown at 60k/yr to play football and major in communications is simply not worth it. There's a cruel reality that you'll someday be forced to face upon graduation; the United States is first and foremost a capitalist society, and there are only so many things you can do with an art-history degree. Definitely try to find something that excites you, stimulates you, and makes you want to search for more. That being said, I'd really put an effort into getting that stimulation through a STEM degree.
This kind of ties into my previous point, make sure to understand the implications and consequences that will inevitably result due to the path that you choose. For example, here at UMKC we offer what's referred to as a 6 year BA/MD program. Students come straight out of high school to be student-doctors at the University in the hopes of graduating with their MD in 6 years, instead of taking 4 years to get a degree, taking the MCAT, and then another 4 years to finish medical school with your MD. Now, there are great conversations to be had revolving around choosing a 6 year program over a 4+4. But there is one point that I hear all the time that has horrible implications.
Do not choose the BA/MD program to avoid the MCAT.
About 80% of the way through the BA/MD program, before starting official rotations, you're going to come face-to-face with the USMLE Step 1; the Licensing Exam that A) makes the MCAT look like a cakewalk and B) is going to decide quite literally the rest of your medical future. Being a bad test-taker won't be an option here. And if your Step 1 scores don't get you into a residency program after match day and the two-day scramble for the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program, suddenly you're a student-doctor with no license and a Bachelors in Arts to fall back on.
Know the implications and consequences of your actions.
Finally, consider the environment you're expecting to immerse yourself in: not only academically but in terms of locale. To some students, being in a big city with that electric vibe is going to fuel your creativity and inspire you to strive for greatness. For me, that's Kansas City. For others, it'll be valuable to be removed from the noise of the metropolitan. Taking a step out of your dormitory and experiencing the crisp spring air will be your source of exhilaration. A short drive to the Snake River to swim, or an even shorter one to Moscow Mountain to hike, bike, and saturate your senses with the fresh smell of pine, will be your ecstasy. For those kind of students, UI is going to be your better fit.
Regardless of how you see these variables unfolding before you, recognize that you're getting ready to enter a phase of life where the world is going to blossom right before your eyes. It's okay to not have every little detail figured out. You'll learn new things along the way. Maybe even discover who you truly are. Take your time, figure out what you want, and why you want it. This list may change over time, and if that happens, life is flexible. Adapt accordingly. Most of all though, when it's all said and done, enjoy the experience. You have your whole life ahead of you.
Oh the places you'll go.