Designer U

Do not choose colleges by prestige alone

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

College students regularly e-mail jokes about their schools' traditional rivals. One southeastern set of "How many does it take to screw in a light bulb?" digs includes: "At Tennessee it takes only one, but he gets seven credits for it.... At Ole Miss it takes five. One to change it, and four to find the perfect J. Crew outfit to wear for the occasion.... At LSU it takes 104. One to screw the darn thing in and 103 to bring the beer.... At Vanderbilt, it takes two. One to screw it in, and one to say how they did it as well as Ivy Leaguers." And so on.

For many high-school seniors and their parents this spring, however, the choice of colleges is no laughing matter. Some ambitious students ask one main question: "Which college will be best for gaining a good job or an advanced degree following graduation, as well as general prestige that I can lean on throughout life?" For such students, Yale is automatically better than Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt better than Auburn, and Auburn better than just about any Christian college, since only a few of the latter are well respected in law-school halls or corporate corridors.

Some wealthy parents are all too willing to pay $120,000 and up for four years of a designer-label school. Even though at many lauded institutions faithful Christian students are lonely sheep among wolves, parents who value social cachet cheat on tithes, deplete retirement savings, and ignore their budgets in other ways so as to provide sons and daughters with a crutch that will give them the opportunity not to use their talents to their fullest.

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That's right, a crutch. Students at elite universities can slouch toward graduation and still gain good placements afterwards. A student with the same talent at a less prestigious school has to achieve an excellent grade point average and do well on standardized exams to get to the same place. The student with a designer-label degree is able to do childish things for a while after graduation and still reenter the fast track. The other student needs to be an adult at age 21. But is that a bad thing? Providentially, the United States is still a country where intelligence and hard work matter, and it's good for students to know that their economic future depends on their efforts.

Many students this spring will kiss their fat envelopes when they receive acceptances from the most prestigious schools. But bright students looking for exposure to top-notch professors should understand the "bait-and-switch" tendency of leading universities: Gain recognition through professorial prestige but assign many teaching duties to graduate students. Students willing to dispense with the crutch would be far wiser to consider the "honors colleges" that have sprung up at many state universities eager to avoid a brain drain; there they will commonly find small classes, professors who want to teach, and intellectual stimulation from other bright students.

But deeper questions also must be asked: Where is a student most likely to grow spiritually and intellectually? Where is he most likely to find a calling and become well-prepared for it? Where is he most likely to find godly enjoyment of his college years? Many students, after considering those questions, may head to a Christian college where the gospel has not been watered down and where brains as well as hearts are considered important. At a good Christian college, students will learn to think biblically from professors who teach them to rebel not against the church but against America's leading religion, secular liberalism.

Spiritually strong students who already have a Christian worldview might decide to accept the challenge of study at a secular university-but they should choose one with a strong chapter of Reformed University Fellowship or some other biblically rigorous campus ministry. Being a missionary at age 18 is not for everyone, but with God's grace and a good support system, students can do well, develop deep friendships, and also gain needed toughness as they respond to anti-Christian attacks.

Parents sometimes ask questions about curricular matters, but since students often learn more from their peers than from their professors, it's also important to assess student culture and politics. It's hard to stand up against drugs and alcohol abuse if everyone around is indulging. It's hard to insist that presidential malfeasance be taken seriously if everyone around argues that adultery and perjury are no big deal.

The biggest mistake in college-picking, however, comes in demanding bread alone. A woman who searches for a rich suitor is called a gold-digger. The same should be said of a student who selects a college for its designer label. Bright students generally don't need a crutch; they can make it on their own. Christian students specifically should not rely on a crutch; they rest on the cross. The right college for a Christian is not one that will merely strengthen his resumé. It is one that will go the furthest in strengthening heart, soul, and mind.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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