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USACollegeChat Podcast

Aug 4, 2016

Your teenager and you should be learning a lot about colleges if you have been keeping up with your assignments. Yes, we know it’s summer, but you will thank us in September. Let’s review what you have done so far (we hope):

This episode’s assignment will be, I think, one of the more enjoyable ones--not so many facts and figures. 

1. Your Assignment #6

Download the Assignment #6 Worksheet

For Assignment #6, your teenager and you are going to look at the location of each college--that is, the type of community the college is located in and the cool things about that community. So, in this assignment, we are not talking about the college itself at all, but rather the surroundings your teenager will be living in for four years.

2. Urban, Suburban, or Rural

As we said in our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, on sale just for the summer from Amazon), the type of community a college is located in is a lot more important than you might think to some students and some families. Furthermore, some students can’t wait to get away from the type of community they grew up in, while others can’t imagine being comfortable in a new physical and cultural environment. For example, both Marie and my oldest child, Jimmy, wanted to stay in the kind of urban environment that they both grew up in. In fact, going to school in a city was Jimmy’s number one college requirement when he was looking.

Are cities great? They are. Cities offer a general excitement and many cultural opportunities (museums and theaters--and the ballet, of course); they have ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity among their residents, which is a plus for many families. Most cities also have good to great public transportation, which is a help to college students who don’t have their own cars. Finally, most cities have more than one college, which gives students an opportunity to meet all kinds of students and make all kinds of friends.

But are the suburbs great? They are, in a different way. Suburbs are relatively safe, for one thing, making them a good choice for lots of students. They are also likely cheaper in terms of everyday living expenses, including movies, and drug store items, and the occasional off-campus meal. They also might offer convenient commuter transportation options for getting into a nearby exciting city--the best of both worlds.

But are rural communities great? They are, again in a different way. Like the suburbs, they are likely to be safe and low-cost, when it comes to everyday spending. But, most important for the students that are attracted to rural colleges, many rural communities offer great expanses of unspoiled environment, which lends itself to loads of outdoor sports, like hiking and biking.

So, whether Broadway or the Pacific Ocean or Pikes Peak is your teenager’s thing, you can find a college there.

The first task on the Assignment #6 worksheet, is simply to classify the location of each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options as urban, suburban, or rural. I am also thinking that adding a category called “small town” makes sense, given the locations, especially, of many small private colleges in the small towns of the U.S.; these small towns are not really rural themselves (though they might be set in a rural area), are not really suburban themselves (because they are not outside a big city), and are not really urban themselves, for sure.

3. Cool Stuff About the Community

The second part of Assignment #6 is something we like to call “cool stuff about the community.” Now, we can’t tell you exactly what to look for here, but you will know it when you see it. We will tell you that some college websites have whole sections devoted to talking about the community that surrounds the college. I have noticed that this is especially true for colleges in lovely rural settings; those colleges like to talk about the nature trails and bike trails and waterfalls and lakes and forests and so on that the college’s students have ready access to.

Some colleges boast about their place on one commercial list or another, like “the best college towns in America” or “the most affordable college towns” or whatever, published by various magazines and college-oriented publications. I know that we quoted these from time to time in our nationwide virtual college tour (Episodes 27 through 53). Some colleges will even reference the spots they earned on these lists in the “At a Glance” pages or lists of awards that the college has won. I recall that one of my favorites among these lists was from Travel + Leisure magazine, which is actually called “America’s Best College Towns.” Deb Hopewell opened her article in Travel + Leisure with the following paragraphs:

‘Depending on how you look at it, Santa Cruz is either the best or the worst place to spend your college years,’ says Keijiro Ikebe, a Silicon Valley visual designer who graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2002. 

‘With the town surrounded by shimmering water and lush forests under sunny blue skies, the last thing you want to do is spend a beautiful day taking notes in a lecture hall.’ 

After all, ivy-covered walls, stately libraries, and cafeteria meals don’t make a great college town. It’s more about the distractions--and Santa Cruz is overflowing with them. There are miles of beaches with some of the best surfing in the country; mountain-bike trails at Wilder Ranch State Park; artisanal coffee bars almost as numerous as craft-beer taps; and your nightly choice of any genre of live music. 

This kind of lively atmosphere earned Santa Cruz a place among the top 20 college towns in America, as chosen by Travel + Leisure readers in our latest America’s Favorite Places survey. They evaluated hundreds of towns for live music, pizza, dive bars, hamburgers, and other qualities that add up to a great college town.” (quoted from the article) 

And, by the way, historic sites also figure into the equation. If you are curious, here are the top 20 college towns, according to Travel + Leisure readers:

  • Syracuse, NY
  • Lafayette, LA
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Fort Collins, CO
  • Duluth, MN
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • San Luis Obispo, CA
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Williamsburg, VA
  • Bozeman, MT
  • Boone, NC
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS

In case you want a different view, you can look at Forbes magazine, which has its own method of calculating its list of best and worst college towns by using 23 academic, social, and financial measures. At the top of the Forbes list, as reported last December by Kathryn Dill, is Ann Arbor (MI), followed by College Station (TX), Iowa City (IA), Provo (UT), and Gainesville (FL). At the bottom of the list is Paterson (NJ), preceded by Yonkers (NY), Germantown (MD), Bridgeport (CT), and Arlington (VA). 

There are plenty more lists you can look at, including the most bike-friendly campuses (either the University of Texas at Austin or Stanford University, depending which list you use--yes, there are two such lists!). But you can also just read up on the community surrounding the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. If those colleges are in communities worth being proud of, the college will undoubtedly write about it on the website. 

So, the second task on the Assignment #6 worksheet is to jot down all the cool stuff you can find about the community, community attractions, and the natural beauty (if any) surrounding each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. While your teenager shouldn’t choose a college to attend based on its surrounding community, it is clear that some communities are far more attractive to some students than others--and it never hurts to have the information available when choosing.

Download the Assignment #6 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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