What if you choose the wrong college?

It’s simple. You transfer to another one.

If you’re moving from one accredited institution to another, there’s a very, very good chance your credits will transfer from your first college to your second one.

Yes, transferring is an inconvenience, both in terms of logistics and building new social circles. But in the long run, it’s worth it if you feel you aren’t at the right college for you.  (I transferred three times as an undergraduate, attending three schools in three states in three semesters. By the time I landed at the third college, I knew what made a college a great fit for me, and I’m so grateful to my younger self for making the decision to switch schools.)

Often the biggest challenge in transferring is admitting to yourself, to your family, and to your friends that you made the wrong choice the first time.  Don’t be afraid to tell them you’ve changed your mind. Remember–your college journey is about you, not them.

Of course, the best route is to do your research well enough that you pick the right college for you the first time.  (I can help.)

Which comes first–your major selection or your college choice?

Tonight I was on one of those big websites that, when you enter some basic information about what you’re looking for in a college, spits out a list of colleges to which you might consider applying. (The vast majority of these sites, by the way, are drawing on data from the National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS Data Center, which you can search yourself–and which will give you far more information than the big college search sites. In fact, the NCES folks made it easy to search IPEDS via College Navigator. Skip the slick sites–especially those that charge you fees for a subscription–and head straight to the Navigator.)

This particular site claims “Discovering the right college starts with finding the right major” and describes the process of determining your major your “first step toward success.”

I’m inclined to disagree.

According to NCES, at least 80 percent of college students will change their majors at least once.

My first college roommate went from history to education, then to library science, to geography, back to library science, and finally settled on range management. Along the way, she joined the Army Reserves, for whom she served as a hydrologist. She started an environmental engineering Ph.D., switched to a top-ranked law school, and finally ended up as an artisan bread baker, which makes her exceptionally happy.

Now, she is undoubtedly an extreme example of a student swinging wildly from field to field. However, she is certainly not alone in her decision to explore other fields.

When I went to college, I knew about education careers, and only education careers. My parents, aunts, and uncles–except for one uncle who was a real estate appraiser–worked in education as teachers or administrators. Many of my friends’ parents were teachers. (Heck, even that appraiser uncle now teaches at a community college.) So I went off to college to become a high school English teacher. During winter break my junior year, after my parents had consumed several glasses of wine, they finally became blunt with me and told me that I would likely hate being a high school English teacher, and I should become a lawyer or a professor. Of course, neither of them really knew anything about either of those careers, other than that they were prestigious and a lot of smart people chose them.

My experience isn’t atypical, either. As a professor, I’ve met many, many students whose choices of major are overly influenced by their parents. When I taught at UC Davis, for example, I met at least a dozen young Asian-American women whose parents had convinced them they must go to pharmacy school, though the students quietly confessed to me that they had almost no interest in that field. For these students and many others, developing an independent, adult relationship with their parents was a major learning objective in college.

My point is this: you likely will change your major, and you might even veer off in a totally different direction. And once you graduate, you are not your major.

So. . . I recommend you choose your college first, and then your major, especially if you’re looking at liberal arts colleges where there’s a standard set of majors in the arts, humanities, and sciences, with a smattering of social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology).

Of course, I’m going to temper this recommendation with some common sense. If you know you’re interested in the agricultural sciences and you have little interest in graduate school, then you should pick a university that offers those majors. Someplace like UC Davis might be ideal, as it offers the full spectrum of agricultural science courses and majors, from biotechnology to large animal husbandry, to pomology, enology and viticulture, brewing science, and sustainable agriculture.

If–to continue this example, which of course also applies to plenty of other fields–you know you want to work in agriculture, but you’re not sure in what capacity, or if you’re more interested in the policy side of agricultural practice, then you might consider a liberal arts college for your undergraduate years, and a specialized graduate program. Maybe you’ll end up in agricultural or land-use law or biotech patenting. Maybe you’ll be working for a historical consulting company that specializes in researching land rights claims. Perhaps you’ll go the biological route and find yourself doing integrated pest management for stone fruit orchards.

The possibilities are endless, particularly if you have a broad understanding of several fields and can make connections among natural and/or cultural phenomena that, on the surface, may not seem to be connected. That’s why, for the vast majority of traditionally aged college students, it’s very, very smart to get an authentic, deep but interdisciplinary, liberal arts education.

My point is this: Choose your undergraduate college wisely, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t believe for a moment that the major you declare when you enter college at age 18 is going to determine your life’s course.  If you’ve selected a college that is a truly great fit for you and that offers a first-rate education, you’re going to have the opportunity to find success in any number of fields.

Should you apply to more than 40 colleges?

Samantha Linder did–she applied to 43 colleges–and she says she’d do it again.

I can understand why Linder made all those applications. She was understandably anxious about paying for college and worried about being accepted to a quality school.

. . .which is pretty much the case for any student applying to college.  Really, there’s no need to adopt Linder’s approach.

With solid research into colleges, however, the college application process doesn’t have to be crazy-making, and it certainly doesn’t need to encompass 43 applications.

How many applications do I recommend? It depends on how high you’re aiming, and how much of a “reach” each school might be for you.  If you do your research well, five to eight colleges should be sufficient.

Yes, you might be able to find 43 colleges where you’ll be reasonably happy, and a subset of those may offer you financial assistance if you’re eligible for need-based or merit aid. But a good adviser will help you narrow your choices to a half dozen or so that will be an excellent fit for you academically and, with a bit of planning and luck, financially.

If you need my help, let me know. I’m currently offering a few discounted packages, one of which focuses exclusively on finding your best-fit colleges.

Will your college education be open source?

Students, the future is open source and open access.

When you are researching a college, be sure to ask if the technologies you’ll be using in your classroom and in your projects are open source.


  • If the future is open source, you need to be skilled in open source technologies, as well as understand why they’re important, when you launch onto the job market.
  • If you can use an open-source version of a software product, you’ll save money over purchasing the proprietary versions. If the university doesn’t have to buy the proprietary version (e.g., the for-profit Blackboard learning management system over the open-source Canvas, Sakai, or Moodle), then it doesn’t need to add the cost of these technologies to your tuition.  (Note: open source technologies aren’t entirely free for universities; like any software, they require staff and server space, but the costs over time tend to be lower than proprietary software.)
  • While learning to use an open-source technology, if you get stuck, you’ll likely find a vibrant online community of ethically minded and passionate users willing to help a newbie learn the ropes.
  • Open source technologies tend to be more portable than proprietary software. If you make something in a class, it’s easier to export it from, say, WordPress than from Blackboard. This makes it easier to republish your best work and showcase it in a portfolio to future employers.

This is why I’m such a fan of the University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own initiative.  Check it out if you haven’t already.

Many prospective college students and their families don’t consider the impact a university’s technologies will have on their time as a student and their employability once they graduate, which I find odd, as technology has become central to the entire college experience.

Two trends college seekers should understand

This report (PDF) from the Boston Consulting Group outlines five trends to watch in higher education.

Two of these are especially important for students searching for a high-quality education: declining revenue and calls for transparency.

BCG reports that declining revenues may lead to “one-third to one-half of all U.S. universities going bankrupt over the coming decades.”

Some details on colleges’ failing finances:
– The percentage of top public universities’ revenue that comes from state appropriations now ranges from 1 to 36 percent. (One percent! How does that institution still qualify as a public university?)
– Enrollment has slowed, and is expected to decline, so colleges and universities can no longer depend on tuition as an ever-increasing source of revenue.
– Endowment portfolios have been underperforming.
– Federal agencies also have less money to give, including the NSF and NIH.

So, how are colleges compensating for these losses? Some tactics:

  • steep increases in tuition and fees
  • cutting tenured faculty in favor of adjuncts
  • cutting entire programs (including some that might surprise or disappoint you)
  • deferring billions of dollars in maintenance
  • less expensive alternative certificate and degree programs (online, hybrid, shorter in duration, sand/or vocationally focused)*
  • recruitment of more out-of-state and international students, who, at least at public universities, pay higher tuition than do in-state students

Note that we’re not seeing a disinvestment in college athletics.  You can see how much your favorite university spends on college sports in this spreadsheet; check out by how many millions of dollars each athletic department is subsidized, despite the popular belief that major football teams make money for their schools.

Another place where spending is increasing is university administration. Beware the college that has an ever-growing list of vice presidents, vice provosts, deanlings, or bizarrely named administrators in a Byzantine org chart.  (I once met an “executive associate vice chancellor.” Note the three adjectives, none of them explanatory or illustrative of the job duties.)

Here, instead of just being a Negative Nellie, I’ll highlight a college that seems to be doing it right: Claremont McKenna College, whose Student Affairs website explains “The Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Admission, and Financial Aid is really just two people, Jeff and Julia, who oversee a wide spectrum of programs at CMC to ensure that the College is running smoothly for students.” I admire that lack of administrative bloat.

Not surprisingly, stakeholders are asking for a greater return on investment in higher ed, especially since the rapid increase in the cost of a college education comes at a time when median family incomes are stagnating. Furthermore, recent college graduates are experiencing a soft job market and high debt loads.

The good news: stakeholders expect greater transparency, and colleges, universities, and higher ed consortia are starting to deliver. We can now discover, for example, exactly how much a college or university spends on average educating each student. During the college advising process, I find this data for my clients and use it to help them make especially informed college choices.

If you’re going the DIY route, Michelle Kretzschmar compares the data available in various college search websites and these databases’ ease of use.


*From what I’ve seen so far, I’m not a fan of these plans, as you really do get what you pay for; if you know of one that looks especially promising for first-year, first-time college students, I’d love to hear about it.

Some favorite resources

There’s a lot of bad information out there about college admissions and higher education.  Here are a few of my go-to sources.

If you don’t already have a copy of Loren Pope’s Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right for You, get a copy—especially if you’re considering an Ivy League school or a large public university.  (My copy is more marked up than any other book I own.)

Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed are the industry standards for general higher ed journalism.

Hack Education by Audrey Watters is the best source for information on the various disruptions engendered by new technologies unleashed on college and university campuses.  Bryan Alexander also shares particularly valuable insights about decision-making in higher ed, especially with regards to technology. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog also offers incisive commentary on higher ed, particularly along the axes of race and class.

Among admissions-focused blogs, George Cornelius’s Finding My College is the most thoughtful and best-informed I’ve found.  The Washington Monthly’s College Guide blog archive also always offers nutrition-rich food for thought.

And, of course, there’s a ton of data out there for you to find and interpret.  Check out the resources linked at the bottom of this earlier post, and explore Michelle Kretzschmar’s Do-It-Yourself College Rankings site.

I always love exploring new resources—leave links to your own faves in the comments.

Data-driven college searches

When I applied to college twenty years ago, information for prospective students came in primarily five forms:

  • brochures from colleges and universities;
  • thick books aggregating information about colleges and universities, with one or two pages dedicated to each institution;
  • primitive, searchable databases, available on CD-ROM;
  • admissions officers visiting high schools or college fairs;
  • campus visits.

And hoo boy, was I poorly informed.  I made decisions based on the aesthetics of college campuses—as shown in brochure photos, but also on my limited visits—and on my belief that I needed to be in an environment significantly different from my very large Southern California high school.

I ended up on the opposite coast, and I fit the public liberal arts college’s student profile just about perfectly. It was a beautiful campus, but only after landing at a college that was 95 percent white did I realize I thrived in diverse environments. Only after I walked into the meaty, greasy, carb-heavy dining hall did I understand I really did need lots and lots of fresh vegetables and vegetarian sources of protein to remain happy and health. Only after being shoved into a dilapidated dorm room far too small for three people did I realize I needed some basic creature comforts that the dorm just didn’t provide.

I lasted only one semester.  A couple years later, while an admissions tour guide at my third college, I advised all prospective students to “Stay overnight in the dorms; eat the food; meet the people.”  (That advice still applies, by the way.)

Today, however, we have the opposite situation from what 17-year-old me faced; we have a glut of college information available to us online. Strangely, however, most college rankings lists include the same kind of information I encountered as a college junior and senior in those thick books in the early 1990s: number of students, number of majors, SAT and ACT scores, class rankings and GPAs of incoming students, tuition and fees.

While this is all useful information for applicants, it doesn’t allow us to understand what’s really going on at a college or university. Questions we ought to be asking include these:

  • Is the institution fiscally sound? Where does its funding come from?
  • How much of its funding goes to undergraduate education?
  • How many students graduate in 4 years or 6 years?
  • What is the real net price a student’s family is likely to pay?  (This is why I like the Washington Monthly rankings so much.)
  • What percentage of the faculty are tenure-line professors invested in the future of the university, and what portion is contingent labor?
  • How much more does the football coach make than a professor?  (For example, at my institution, last I checked, the coach made 45 times what a new prof earned in a year.)
  • What’s the average age of an undergraduate?
  • What’s the difference between what the college spends on each undergraduate each year, and what the undergraduate pays?
  • If it’s a residential college, how many students leave campus each weekend to go home?
  • In what kind of classrooms do students learn?
  • What technologies are used as part of the average course?
  • Are online courses available, and if so, what’s the completion rate?
  • How many students undertake internships, and where?
  • Does the college act in loco parentis, or does it give students greater independence?
  • What percent of its students go on to public service careers, such as the Peace Corps?
  • Is this a campus where professors (from that college or elsewhere) tend to send their own kids?
  • Do all the students look like me (or my high school student), and is that a good thing?


The questions that matter vary by student and family.  Learning to ask the right questions for your family is not easy, as the most important questions (aside from financial aid availability) are rarely obvious.  And sometimes the answers, even though they are on the Internet or a phone call away, can be difficult to find.  Once you’re looking at numbers and options, crunching and comparing data is not usually as fun as daydreaming about the perfect fall day at your ideal college campus.

In the end, yes, your gut is going to play a big part in your college enrollment decision.  But your search for your right school need not be driven by popular misconceptions, whim, or emotion.  Ask the right questions, find the right data, and interpret that data thoughtfully.

If you need help figuring out what questions you should be asking, how to find the answers to those questions, or how to make sense of data, you can get in touch with me for help.

College rankings are next to useless–find your own data instead


There are countless lists ranking colleges based on all kinds of criteria, but the two most-talked about lists in recent years are the long-standing U.S. News & World Report rankings (first published in 1983), the Forbes rankings (begun in 2008), and the Washington Monthly rankings (which appeared for the first time in 2006).

Problems with the rankings

While I’ve noted many parents of college-bound juniors and seniors (as well as parents of current college students looking to validate their tuition expenses) pay a good deal of attention to the U.S. News rankings, few faculty within higher ed take the rankings seriously as a way of evaluating the quality of an education. (Yes, universities still like to rank high on the list, as it’s a great marketing tool, albeit a deceptive one.)

For example, in 1996, the president of highly-ranked Stanford University wrote to the editor of U.S. News that he found the rankings a fairly useless exercise. “As the president of a university that is among the top-ranked universities,” he wrote, “I hope I have the standing to persuade you that much about these rankings—particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision—is utterly misleading.”  Ten years later, a group of liberal arts college presidents offered a similar critique.

It’s not just college presidents who disparage the rankings; each publication has a stake in downplaying the usefulness of the others’ lists. A couple years ago, James Marshall Crotty wrote at Forbes that the Washington Monthly rankings were insufficiently focused on conservative ideals; that list prioritizes instead the public service records of colleges’ alumni as well as colleges’ affordability.  And Forbes contributor George Leef discounts college rankings altogether, admitting that “students who attend a prestigious college do not necessarily get a better education than students who attend one that is far down in the rankings.” Forbes’s rankings, of course, embody the attitude that pricier is better; the average tuition of its top 50 colleges (excluding the military academies, which don’t charge tuition) is $57,571 per year.

Meanwhile, Washington Monthly claims its criteria—social mobility, research, and service—are the metrics to watch. I agree they’re important, especially when looked at alongside more “traditional” ranking factors.

So. . . What college information should you use?

I admit that I find the Washington Monthly rankings a useful starting point for most parents and students, particularly its “Best Bang for the Buck” list.  The list includes not only the net price of 350 colleges, but also each college’s graduation rate, percent of students receiving Pell grants, and alumni student loan default rates. (Those last are really important–it’s an indicator of alumni success, as monthly student loan repayments can be steep.)  The list is eclectic, but skewed toward coastal universities in its top 20.  Note that despite all the talk about higher ed being unaffordable to California residents, two of the top 10 schools are California State universites, Fullerton (at $3,489 per year) and Long Beach (at $5,699 per year).  Even liberal arts colleges make the list, with Amherst College at the very top, and well-regarded colleges like Williams, Grinnell, Barnard, Occidental, Gustavus Adolphus, College of the Atlantic, and Wheaton (IL) making the top 150.

I urge parents and students to look instead at the information colleges provide under the Common Data Set Initiative, a collaboration among U.S. News & World Report, Peterson’s, and the College Board. Instead of relying on rankings determined by someone else’s formulas, parents and students should decide what’s important to them and look directly at the data.  (Of course, I can help with this process, and it’s included in my college admissions consulting package.)  Some thoughtful participants in the College Confidential forums assembled a list of links to individual colleges’ Common Data Sets.

Further resources

Wikipedia has an overview of various organizations’ college rankings, as well as an article summarizing criticism of college rankings.

IPEDS offers a treasure trove of data, accessed either through its College Navigator or its primary portal, which offers access to all kinds of data analysis.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Higher Education Data Center also offers a ton of data.

Many states maintain their own higher ed data warehouses.  Add your state’s name to this Google search string, and see what emerges.

Image by GDS Infographics, and used under a Creative Commons license.

What’s up with lecture capture and “flipped” classrooms?

This semester, when I walked into one of my classrooms, I found myself greeted by big signs reminding me to turn on the microphone and be sure I was within the range of the camera. A sign next to the whiteboard explained the classroom technology could record my lectures and upload them automatically to Blackboard, the university’s course management system.

The university is making a few assumptions:

  1. I lecture.
  2. I use Blackboard.

Both are incorrect.  And therein lies a cautionary tale not just for the university and for instructors, but also for students.  Students and parents should know in advance what kind of technology is used in the classroom and the repercussions of that technology.

How lecture capture works

Universities originally promoted these “lecture capture” technologies so that students who missed class or had difficulty with the information presented could watch the video on their own time outside of class.  Recently, though, many universities have been encouraging their faculty to “flip” the classroom by recording their lectures in advance, uploading them into the course management system, and requiring students to watch the videos for homework.

Students then come to class to do “homework”—problem sets in a math class, for example—or activities, with the help of the instructor and perhaps teaching assistants.

Depending on the size of the class, students’ ability to learn from recorded lectures, the student-instructor ratio, the instructor’s savvy with such exercises, and students’ willingness to interact with one another, such in-class activity can be highly beneficial for student learning and can go a long way toward engaging students with the subject and with each other.

Potential pitfalls

A university’s use of lecture capture, however, can also reveal a lot about its structure, its teaching and learning philosophies, its attitudes about students, and its resources.

Lecture is a questionable teaching strategy. Research indicates students fail to retain the vast majority of information shared in a lecture—even if asked about it fifteen minutes after the lecture has ended. If an instructor lectures regularly, it’s also often a sign that he expects students to learn content rather than demonstrate skills.  Are instructors asking students to take quizzes and exams or write research papers, author lab reports, and undertake creative projects?  Instructors who lecture typically assess students via quizzes and exams rather than work that requires sustained critical or creative thinking.  And, of course, employers favor graduates who can communicate–skills that are more likely to be developed through interacting rather than taking exams.

Universities like lecture capture because its content is eminently recyclable and therefore scaleable. Once I record the lectures in the classroom, they’re on a university-controlled server, and the university may claim copyright for them. That means the university could package them up into a course and hand them off to just anyone to teach–but most likely an underpaid adjunct–or do away with instructors altogether and offer it as a MOOC, all without my permission.  It’s not an ethical way to treat employees or students.  (University administrators seem to think flipping the classroom will save them money, though Case Western Reserve University CIO Lev Gonick points out that flipping the classroom actually takes a village of employees.)

I also worry that watching video of lectures will cut into the time students should be reading (a concern shared by history professor Jonathan Rees).  I believe students need to get more points of view than just the instructor’s, and they certainly shouldn’t be replacing reading original sources with an instructor’s video-recorded lecture summarizing the authors’ ideas.  My own class sessions comprise discussion and activities on assigned reading (or occasionally high-quality viewing) rather than lecture and objective tests.

Know yourself as a learner

As you might have caught on by now, I think a university’s use of lecture capture to flip the classroom can be a red flag.  But it’s up to you; if you’re the kind of student who can learn from video lectures and who doesn’t need to be able to ask for clarification during a lesson, then you might be fine with a few classes flipped in this manner.

Personally, the thought of spending 16-20 hours watching professors lecture via video as my homework each week makes me a little ill.  (So does listening to that many hours of lecture in the classroom.)  I have far better ways to use my time, and I agree with those who have declared “These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket.”


College helps its traditional-age students complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood. For decades (actually centuries!), however, people have been debating with which constellation of knowledge and skills a graduating student should enter adulthood. Many employers want to new graduates who can communicate and problem solve creatively; others want graduates with experience in their specific hardware or software platforms. Other leaders claim a college education should enable graduates to contribute to the civic good of society, not merely its business profits and tax base.  Advocates of this approach argue a broad-based liberal arts education, with a balanced curriculum of courses in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences, provides the best preparation for individual graduates as well as society at large.

What any single model looks like in practice, however, is also up for debate. Most humanities disciplines, for example, have experienced a shift in their canonical texts over the past four decades. In a recent essay excerpted in the Mail & Guardian, author J. M. Coetzee declares himself a passionate partisan for the humanities, but then claims universities need only require students to take a year-long course in the humanities. He writes to John Higgins, author of a new book on academic freedom,

You argue that only the faculties of humanities are equipped to teach students the critical literacy that allows a culture to continually renew itself. But I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

I’ll have much more to say about that passage, and the rest of Coetzee’s essay, soon, but for now, let’s take up Coetzee’s consideration of “critical literacy.”  He seems to be referring to a student’s awareness and understanding of the big concepts that have shaped (at least) the Western world over millennia.

For our purposes, Coetzee’s definition of literacy is too narrow.  We should be talking instead of literacies.

See, before you even begin to make a list of colleges to which you’d like to apply, you need to be clear on why you’re going to college in the first place.  (Alas, “to get a job” is no longer a sufficient answer.) If you are a particularly clear- and future-minded student, you might be able to trust your vision of whom you will be in four to six years—I have known, students, for example, who know from day 1 in which federal agency they want to work, and the steps they must take to get there—then you can get away with some fairly specific objectives.  The vast majority of students, however, find college to be a process of discovery, and they graduate with a different view of themselves and the world than they had when entering college.

Most high school juniors and seniors, therefore, might be better off thinking about literacies rather than specific career objectives.  You may have already had opportunities to develop some of these, but others you may want to develop in greater depth—and some you might not even have considered as sets of knowledge and skills you might prioritize in college.

Cultural literacy: This category might include traditional cultural literacy, such as being able to speak another language, pick up on literary allusions, identify musical genres, or determine the aesthetic genealogy of a piece of contemporary art.  However, it also might also include understanding how to talk (or, perhaps even more importantly, how not to talk) with someone whose life experiences have been very different from your own because of their national citizenship, race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, disability, political commitments, or religion, for example. Avoiding chronic foot-in-mouth disease is an excellent, and much undervalued, skill. Colleges that attract a highly diverse student body offer all kinds of opportunities to develop this literacy.

Civic literacy: In my mind, this overlaps with cultural literacy.  You should know how your government functions, on local, state, and national levels, and what roles residents and citizens can take in shaping that function. You should be able to have a civil and potentially mind-changing (yours or theirs) conversation with someone whose views occupy a very different point on political spectrum from your own. You should be able to evaluate all kinds of data (including statistics, anecdotes, people’s moral stances, etc.) and formulate a recommendation for action (e.g. passing a local bond to support schools; voting for one candidate over another; advocating for a rule, policy, or law) based on these data.

Scientific and mathematical literacy: This literacy might include more than a basic grasp of the content and methods of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and the various fusions of these fields, including earth science, computer science, kinesiology, certain areas of linguistics, nanotechnology, environmental engineering, and countless others—and you should develop the ability to update your knowledge in these fields once you graduate. Part of this literacy involves understanding that science is influenced by culture—e.g., what kinds of research we choose to fund, which groups of people are most likely to benefit from (or be harmed by) particular research, or what and how individuals observe in the lab or field—and advocating for a better, more democratic, more equitable scientific practice.

Technological literacy: This one is ever-changing, thanks to the pace of technological development. For most students, it’s enough to emerge from college able to figure out how to use all kinds of software with almost no formal instruction—but I don’t want to make this process sound easy or natural. Developing this literacy means getting practice with lots of different platforms, and for some students, it also includes engaging with code or markup.

Moral and ethical literacy: This literacy involves developing a compass that resonates with you, rather than adopting the compass provided to you by your family or community. Ethics instruction can come from just about anywhere—courses in philosophy, literature, economics, religious studies, journalism, social work, and biotechnology, for example, all regularly touch on issues of ethics and/or morality. But you also might be the kind of person who wants to explore moral and ethical issues outside the classroom; maybe you need a college with a good debate team, informal and interdisciplinary student-faculty group discussions, or a city packed with all kinds of churches, temples, and mosques.

Social and sexual literacy: If you ever feel socially awkward—and hey, who doesn’t?—college provides many opportunities to work on your interpersonal and communication skills, including dating and sex. If you know your sexuality is other than traditional hetero, for example, but you haven’t had a chance to explore it, you might want a college that explicitly embraces sexual and gender diversity and has thriving communities of LGBT people.  If you are straight, and you’re hoping to find your life’s love in college, find one that is relatively gender-balanced; if you’re a woman looking to date men, for example, a former women’s college that only recently began to admit men might not be your best bet. Conversely, if you’re looking to focus exclusively on your intellectual development, and you feel dating has been distracting you or you have no interest in it whatsoever, then such a college might actually benefit you.

Health and wellness literacy: This literacy encompasses all kinds of learning to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.  Many traditional-age students arrive at college to discover that, once removed from their familial environments, they need additional support because they are, for example, depressed or anxious. Other students experience dramatic shifts in health, including dramatic weight loss/gain or addiction. Understanding how your body and mind work, and getting informal or professional help when you need it, is an important skill, and one that is more often acquired through experience than through formal classroom instruction or “book learning.”