Needle in the haystack

A trip to Florida reveals the overwhelming choices when it comes to selecting a university in the United States. With literally thousands of colleges available you know the odds are good there’s one that’s just right for you. Finding it is a different story.

I can’t get an exact figure on how many accredited universities there are in the United States of America. College Board (the gateway to applications in the US) has 3700 listed, Education USA say there are about 5000 while the Washington Post tells me the number is ‘some 5300’. Not that it really matters once you get past three figures. It’s hard enough to research 40 let alone 400 and still less 4000. For now let’s take 3,700 as the number. In careers class I often ask students to list the American universities they know of. ‘Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Stanford…’ The list continues until they get to about 10, sometimes, if they are interested, they get closer to 20. ‘This means’, I tell them, ‘that there at least 3680 colleges in the US that you never even heard of” (There are just 26 to choose from in South Africa).

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Lynn University: Small, inovovative and international.

Recently I had the opportunity to explore one particular needle in this educational haystack. Lynn University in Boca Raton, Southern Florida invited me over for their Counselors’ Program. A ‘no brainer’, the only drawback was trying to explain to my teaching peers that, during the pressure and stress of the term, I’m going to be in the Sunshine State while they are just in a state. A ‘Counsellor Fly In’ is a great way for a university to raise its profile and increase its chances of being noticed by counsellors and students. For counsellors it’s a great opportunity to learn, network and travel, but If I did one of these visits a week every week of the year (yes colleagues I would) it would take me a minimum of 71 years to visit every single college in the States. For me then such a trip is not only about learning the specifics of the individual university but, more importantly, to gain information about the wider field of higher education in the Sates generally.

According to a UNESCO study 7,395 South African students head outside of the country to study each year. 1,779 of these go the United States, 1,212 to the UK and 700 to Australia. Given that the US is the most popular destination for study abroad how does anyone go about narrowing down the field to work out which institutions to apply to? All the advice I have ever had on this issue centres around ‘fit’. If Astronomers talk about the ‘Goldilocks Planet’ existing somewhere in the universe with the perfect conditions for human habitation, then College Counsellors look for the ideal fit between student and college. As Susan Knowles from EducationUSA says “The most important thing is for students to apply to universities that are the ‘best fit’ for them.  This increases their chances of admission and some kind of funding”. In order to help consider what might be considered good fit, and also help narrow your search, here are 5 questions to ask about any university you apply to.

  1. Is it any good?

Unless you are the spawn of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie it is likely that you (well your parents or their bank) are paying significant sums of money to attend university in the states. If so, you need to be going to a good one. There are various way of discovering the quality of a university other than by reputation alone. There are a number of rating sites, one of the most helpful of which is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. American Colleges dominate the list with fifteen out of the world’s top twenty being from the States. There are a number of filters you can apply to the rankings (including by region and subject) to make your search more precise.

  1. Is it any good at what I want to study?

 Some universities are as good, or better, than higher ranked rivals in particular subjects. While I was in Florida we spent an evening in Lynn’s state of the art concert hall listening to their sold out philharmonic orchestra. It turns out that Lynn University’s music is up there with Julliard’s. Their Air School is also highly ranked. The point is that each institution has certain areas where they are stronger than others. If you do go to the States you need to be aware that many or most universities offer the broad based Liberal Arts degree (excellent in my opinion) but you need to understand what this involves.

  1. Can I afford it?

An American education is very expensive. Many institutions do offer financial aid, and in general the better the university the more funding is made available (the very top offer ‘needs blind’ funding, ensuring you can afford to go if you are made an offer). However many do not offer assistance to international students. Susan Knowles says, “…there are over 1,000 U.S. universities that offer partial scholarships to international students and approximately 100 that offer full (tuition, room and board) scholarships.  These are in addition to the 100’s of universities that offer sports scholarships to outstanding international sportsmen and sportswomen.  The more funds that are needed, the stronger the student’s application needs to be.”  Which bring us to ….

  1. Will I get in?

Lots of nonsense get spoken (spice as our students say) that you need an overseas qualification. Not true, South Africa’s National Senior Certificate is more than sufficient. Of course the better you do in it, the better the universities you can get admitted to, but that’s true everywhere. For American Colleges you do also have to write the SAT or similar. However you need to know that in the US entrance to a top university is a cut throat, competitive industry. In the States, more than in the UK and certainly South Africa, the universities care what you do outside of the classroom. They will even track the interest you display in the university, (through e-mails, visits phone calls) as part of their admission criteria. In many U.S. high schools, teams of 4 or more Guidance Counsellors assist with the application process and there are a whole army of independent counsellors available for hire at sometimes exorbitant expense.

  1. How does it match my personal preferences?

Lynn University it turns out is a small, innovative university with an international flavour, perfect for some but not all. The state of Florida is though the 4th most popular destination for South African students behind New York, Massachusetts, and Texas.  While there I discovered that Florida is flat (a landfill site known as Mt Trashmore was the highest point in the area) and hot (like Goldilocks porridge).  Don’t go there if mountaineering is your thing, especially if it you like it with snow and ice. You also need to check what sport and activities are on offer. While I was at Lynn I met a South African student on a 100% golf scholarship and learnt too that they have an excellent Soccer programme.  In contrast many American Colleges will not offer rugby, although there are more students playing rugby in the US than there are in SA (1% of 3700 is bigger than 25% of 26). Many students from Africa choose a college that is near to relatives living in the USA, or at least on the Eastern Seaboard which saves time and money when travelling.  There are many other considerations but you get the point.

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The Sunshine State replete with sand and sea.

I must say that Lynn really looked after us and made a huge effort on the tour. With a careful mix of American and international counsellors, notes were compared and learning was advanced both formally and informally. The university made a concerted effort to help us learn experientially, through the music we listened too, the Chinese culinary class we attended and the working brunch on Deerfield Beach (I can hear my colleagues choking on their dining hall food) with some of their graduates. If the effort they put into our tour was any measure of how they treat their students then you will be in good hands.

To our staff, I should say I’m sorry for missing that Friday afternoon meeting but I’m really not. I think I was on the beach about then.


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