The recent scandal concerning parents who paid to bribe school officials to admit their children into college tells me that most parents know nothing about higher education in America.

Here’s the straight skinny!

“Education” is a way to understanding Western culture and languages, and the history, culture, and languages of other cultures. There are many colleges that offer a good “education” in those areas of knowledge, if that is what you seek.

If you are a student approaching the age of admission to college, or a parent of a student who will be seeking admission to college, you should assess which of two courses you should take: earning a degree or gaining an education. They are not the same, though by gaining an education you will receive degree credit toward a diploma. Other factors enter this process of deciding what’s best for you including cost, religious belief, your talents, and long term goals.

Identifying who you are and what your goals are is imperative.

Not many students in college seek an education. Yet personal stories abound about young students who had no appreciation for art, music, history, literature, or the sciences who “come alive” to those disciplines in college. If you have no academic interests at present, you should carefully choose where you go to college because you may be surprised by what you learn, what excites you, and what shapes your future happiness.

If you are not a “reader,” or have no interest in ideas or history you should not go to a “Great Books” college. Thomas Aquinas College in California and Thomas More College in New Hampshire are two excellent Catholic “Great Books” colleges. St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland is a storied secular Great Books school.

Great “research” universities offer a wider variety of programs taught by scholars at the top of their fields and should be considered, if your goals lead to, or require, a postgraduate degree in law, medicine, or teaching. Columbia University, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago are some of the best research universities.

If your family is the owner of an established business and you are expected to return after graduation and work in that business, then any good business program should prepare you for that career. There are too many such programs to list and most public and private universities offer competent business degree programs. Pick one, especially from the many in your state, because the contacts from your state that you’ll make will assist the growth of your family business. If you’re from Colorado seek admission to CU-Boulder; from Pennsylvania then it’s Penn State; Florida, then University of Florida. You’ll also find the tuition cost is within reason.

Some students attend military schools (President Trump is one example) and West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy in Colorado should be considered.

But most students are not inclined toward military service, or work in a family business nor are they driven by intellectual interests. These students want a degree to enhance their employment opportunities. If that describes you, then give serious attention college tuition costs.

My personal belief is that students from families of modest means and no discernible academic interests should choose college on the basis of cost and set $5,000 a year in tuition as a limit on what you’re willing to pay for tuition. Some states like Colorado and California offer public university programs in that price range. Do a survey and consider moving to one of those states.

Many, if not all colleges, offer discounts on tuition of between 30% and even as high as 60%. Coupled with “scholarships,” Pell Grants, and federal tuition loans, even some high-priced universities fall into your price range.

If you have any athletic interests or abilities, you should develop them while in high school. Grades are not important because “grade inflation” is rampant and most instructors avoid hassles with complaining students and parents by giving “A” and “B” grades.

Scores on standardized tests are most important, so if you “freeze” when taking tests, you must begin early to overcome that and work on taking standardized tests.

Most small colleges with under 500 students need to sustain enrollments, so if you have no demonstrated athletic talent, no academic interests and just want a college degree in order to get a good job, the world of Academe is your oyster. Virtually every college with low enrollments will accept your application.

Since business and industry is shaped by digital technologies, computer programming skills are much in demand. That field requires ability in what is called “serial reasoning.” Serial reasoning is distinct and different from “conceptual reasoning.” Computer programmers think “serially” and creative talents are “conceptual” reasoners. Get some advice to determine which type you are, or take a course in computer programming and find out if you like it and can do well. “Udacity,” a for-profit online school, offers excellent introductory courses in programming and other subjects for $599 each.

Of course, if you love your high school Biology, Chemistry, and Physics courses then consider a career in the sciences. Here, too, the world of Academe is your oyster and most universities offer excellent science programs.

What if none of these careers interest you? Then consider a vocational program at the many colleges that focus on job training. Keyser University is the second largest university in Florida and offers training in just about every area of training for employment.

If you “must” attend an Ivy League school like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, then explore admission to several top-of-the line preparatory schools. Groton and Phillips Andover have good records in gaining admission to the Ivy League. In Europe, wealthy parents send their students to Le Rosey. I have known graduates of many preparatory schools and I can’t say that these programs are worth much. Yes, you’ll gain admission to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but what will you have learned?

Finally, if you are “religious,” you may want to consider a religious college. But, be aware that most religious colleges today are no longer faithful and some that are may not offer excellent academic programs. I went to graduate school at Notre Dame and do not recommend going there nor to the many “Catholic” colleges in the United States. I took Economics one summer at a Presbyterian college and was not impressed with their faculty.

In the final analysis, a good education is earned by hard work with instructors at the top of their field. How would you know? Visit the academic department where they teach and review their curriculum vitae. A good scholar will try to publish a serious book every five years. If they have not published a book, then assess whether they are dedicated to teaching. There are some scholars whose love for teaching makes them very good instructors. Their course enrollments are large and you often have to wait to gain admission to one of their courses.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Bishirjian attended a large research university as an undergraduate and a fine graduate program in Government where many of his instructors were political conservatives or émigrés from Western Europe who fled Nazi persecution. He taught at several colleges, worked in the Reagan Administration, published five books, and founded and gained accreditation for a solely Internet-based university that offered eleven degree and certificate programs, including degree programs in Government and Business.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “A Portrait of Joseph Banks” (c. 1773) by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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