Posted by: unlikelygrad | January 22, 2010

choosing a school for undergrad

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the best choice for an undergraduate education. Not for me, of course, but for my oldest son, Al.

As I’ve mentioned before, UnlikelyDad and I decided to use the local community college as a transition school, letting our 100% homeschooled boys adjust to a classroom environment before going off to a “real” college. Al didn’t require any adjustment at all: he started out his first quarter with a 4.0, and his GPA hasn’t slipped much since then. He’s going to get his AS in June.

And then what? What do I advise him in terms of school choice?

UnlikelyDad is a graduate of BigNameU, the USN-ranked top-10 school where I also did my first two (disastrous) years of college. He knows that having that name on his diploma opened a lot of doors for him. On the other hand, BigNameU was a high-pressure school with no dumb students to round out the bottom of the curve, so UnlikelyDad graduated with a 2.96 GPA. This proved problematic when he was applying to grad school later on.

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent 2 years at BigNameU, one semester at a community college (getting my GPA above 2.0 so I could apply elsewhere), and then 2.5 more years at one of the Cal State University schools. I have to say, I enjoyed my time at the CSU school far better than BigNameU. The professors weren’t so full of themselves, for one thing. They cared more about me as a person. They cared about teaching.

Al is seriously considering a profession which usually requires a master’s degree. So: should he go for a state school, where he might get more attention (which would help him learn better) and a better GPA (to help him get into grad school)? Or should he go for the name brand cachet of a better-known school?

Before I came here, I would have advised the former choice. But I recently overheard my advisor complaining about a local state school, which she labelled “a glorified community college.” If that’s how professors think of schools like that, should he not attend such a school?

Of course, there are a couple of grad students here who attended that school. One of my officemates falls into that number. He’s not only very smart, but much better at critical thinking than many other people I’ve met at school. Clearly, my advisor’s generalization may or may not be on track. But if professors think that way, especially professors who may be on an admissions committee, isn’t that something to take into account?




  1. After earning my AS (with a 3.9gpa), I felt pressured to attend a BigNameU. I thought that the BigName would offset any prejudices against my junior college beginnings. Unfortunately, BigNameU was too big for me. My major department was huge and competitive, unlike my former very nurturing department. Without the support and encouragement that I was accustomed to, I floundered. I left with a BA, instead of the BS that I was working towards, and still haven’t applied to grad school as I had planned.

    As big as the name on the diploma may be, an environment that is the right fit for your son will be much more important.

  2. I went to a liberal arts school with a smaller student body (10-12,000). I had smaller class sizes, more one on one attention, and it made it easier to get into a research lab. Just make sure the school is good and decent reputation. Your kids need to break out and establish themselves and this will be what opens up doors for them based upon activities (research experience, internships, etc.) not where they went to school so much.

  3. I just found your blog from reading a post of yours on and its great! Public universities are a great option by the way for undergraduate work for your oldest son…Not XYZ state school however but rather University of XYZ. I’m not clear why but XYZ state schools never seem to rank very highly or are thought of very highly in comparison to the University of XYZs. I’m probably not making the most sense so here is an example. UC San Diego is a fine school to go to if you do well there. San Diego State University is less well funded and less well thought of. I am an academic advisor for a public university and many of my students have gone on to the top graduate programs in their field (at schools like CalTech, MIT, etc.). Public schools can be a good value. Universities don’t work for everyone though because of their size and because there are some really bad or struggling teachers there who might care more about research then teaching. This can also happen at private liberal arts school like that which I attended but is less likely to happen because there is somewhat more reward for teaching at such schools than the public research universities. The key at any of these schools is to get to know your professors and make yourself stand out for a good reason (like one of our students who started working with a professor in a research lab during his freshman year and talked his way into a few junior courses in his sophomore year). There is several students who I know would have been happier majoring in a different field and would also have done better there but they have convinced themselves that this field is what they must do with their lives. The important thing is to find something you are motivated by and a field where you feel you can eventually make a contribution rather than just spinning your wheels or running just fast enough to stay in one place.

    Hope he takes a few days to sit in on classes at schools of interest.

  4. I think that your son should go to the school w/the best reputation where he also feels that the climate is a good fit for him and his learning style. Going to a less demanding school just to boost your GPA for grad school is a stupid strategy. How do you know that your son won’t change his mind about what he wants to do?

    I went to a big-name school and don’t regret it. I don’t have a 4.0 GPA to show for it, but I did meet some amazing people and had some wonderful, life-changing experiences during those 4 yrs.

    The pros and cons of different types of ugrad programs have been discussed many times before on various blogs. I recommend the discussion over at Cosmic Variance; It think it was one of Sean Carroll’s “unsolicited advice” posts.

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