The Right College Can Change Lives

Marty O'Connell has spent three decades working in college admissions, not exactly low stress for her or for the families involved. In a country where some parents start worrying about college as they're picking their toddler's preschool, the pressure can become overwhelming at the point that higher education decisions are being made.

 In her current role as executive director of Colleges That Change Lives, O'Connell travels the country from her base in Maryland in the hopes of refocusing some of the energy around college admissions.

O'Connell's organization is made up of a collection of higher education institutions featured in Colleges that Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges by the late Loren Pope. The book and the organization reinforce the message that finding a school that fits each student's needs is much more important, and likely to produce a more successful match, than choosing a school because everyone has heard of it. They believe there is a college or university for almost everyone, and the process to find it can be less stressful when the focus is on the right school rather than the right name.

O'Connell answered our questions about colleges in a phone interview:

CP: Could you describe the philosophy of Loren Pope's book for those unfamiliar with it?

We are a brand name culture. The fear is that if I haven't heard of it, it must not be good. But the reality is that institutions that many families have not heard of are outperforming the name-brand institutions.

Loren Pope set out to put together a list of colleges where students could go that weren't Ivy [League] and be very successful. These are colleges he knew very well. They focus on the whole student and on community. They are where students get to know the faculty. The title came because of how often in interviewing students and faculty members they said, "This school changed my life."

CP: The organization Colleges That Change Lives developed as a result of the book. Could you explain its work?

We emphasize fit versus ranking. Our message is to choose a college that's a good fit. We have four national tours each year. We have a very robust Web site. We're answering questions every day from counselors, parents and students.

Sometimes we're really just telling them to take a breath. Students are reading the headlines of scary media stories about who doesn't get in [to college]. They think if they're not as perfect as that student was, they're never going to get in. The reality is more students are being admitted than are being denied, but if you read the headlines, you'd think just the opposite.

The mission of Colleges That Change Lives is to try to help students do a college search for a fit based on who the students are and where they're going. It may turn out to be based on who the student is that they're a great fit for the Ivy League. But they need to learn how to ask questions about themselves first rather than making the assumption that because a college is well-known that it's right for them. There is a right fit for almost every student.

CP: What are some of the shared elements among the 40 schools?

The sense of community is prime. These are places where students are not going to be a passive member. These are places where students are going to be involved from the moment they arrive. Faculty, students and administration are going to join together to make sure students are learning and have every opportunity. The dedication of the faculty to teaching and mentorship is critical as well.

Among the 40, any student can find a fit. Not every one works well for all students. [The schools] have unique personalities. But there's a place for any student, whether a student who thinks they know what they want in college but, in particular, the student who is trying to find their way. They have the opportunity to be a part of a community where someone is going to point out their strengths as well as weaknesses and offer opportunities in internships and research as well as job opportunities.

CP: In North Carolina, only Guilford College in Greensboro was listed among the 40. In the United States as a whole, there are about 4,000 colleges and universities. Are there more schools out there that fulfill your organization's mission and how can students recognize them?

This is a start for families who have never heard of some of these schools. There are far more than 40 colleges that change lives. We are just trying to get [students] started doing a self-exploration before determining what should be on the list of colleges.

At this point, the nonprofit is more concerned with the message of fit than with a list. We encourage students and parents to use the message of the book to find schools beyond the 40 that fit the same criteria, such as places where teaching undergraduates and mentoring the undergraduate community are first and foremost.

When it comes to fit, the very first thing students should ask themselves is, "Why am I going to college? What community am I comfortable in and what makes me uncomfortable. What would excite me and what would disappoint me?" Not what they're going to major in. Once a student has done that self-exploration, they should ask what happens once they're on that campus.

What kind of work are students expected to do? How often do they interact with faculty? "What sort of students aren't going to be happy here?" is a great question to ask an admissions counselor. What is the student community like? What is the first thing a school puts on its Web site? What do they highlight? Can students be involved in other things they love in some way? A musician may not plan to major in music, but can they pursue that love in some way? An athlete may not want to play a varsity sport, but what opportunity is there for that sport and how soon is that available?

Two best friends can go to look at a campus together and one will fall in love with it and one will think, "Oh, I couldn't be happy here." That's what fit is all about.

To learn more about Colleges That Change Lives, including information on local visits, go to Colleges That Change Lives.

Categories: College Planning