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Visibility Vs. Quality: Which Makes the Better College?

How often are high school students told that, in order to be successful, they must attend a college that is above all things instantly recognizable? While high visibility is usually a great indicator that a school is quality material, there are many other factors that may balance out or even outweigh elements like visibility alone. Today, a blog article in the New York Times challenges the importance of a "pedigree" when it comes to the college experience.

Marty O'Connell, executive director of non-profit college resource Colleges That Change Lives, contributed the guest article as a response to students' confusion over what exactly they should be looking for in a potential college. "We exist," she says, "in a name-brand obsessed culture which creates stress-inducing media headlines every year, all year - including during the summer, when high school seniors are winnowing their prospective colleges list." Time and time again, name recognition tops those lists. O'Connell, however, asserts the importance of something parents and school counselors sometimes overlook in their zeal to do what's best -- the students' own success and happiness.

"To counteract the notion that 'a college can't be any good if I've never heard of it,'" she says in her article, "I challenge students to think about the people in their lives who are happy and successful and find out where, or if, they went to college. Doing this same exercise using 'famous' people, they discover that most often the name and visibility of a college choice has much less to do with success in life than do the experience and opportunities students take advantage of during their college years." It's certainly food for thought -- if colleges build their good names on reputation, how do they build up that reputation without students ready to vouch for them as a pillar of their success? As she puts it another way, what if colleges turned away students for never having heard of their high school? There has to be a better way to choose colleges, to pick the best fit without everyone clamoring for the same Ivy Leagues.

According to O'Connell, the key lies in finding the best fit for each individual student: a process that involves slightly less report-reading and slightly more soul searching. Students are encouraged to make lists of their reasons for school -- "Why, really, are you going? What are your abilities and strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you want out of life, or in life--something tangible or intangible? Are you socially self-sufficient or do you need warm, familial support? What kind of learning community do you want to be part of?" -- and share the lists with parents and teachers to help choose a school that will best compliment one's individual interests and life goals, from a small private art college to an online business degree, from a close-to-home vocational school to pursuing the Ivy Leagues after all.

Of course, there are caveats that everyone should look for, regardless of visibility. The most important thing: accreditation. Any school worth your consideration should be an accredited school without fail, and one of the best things about highly-recognized schools is that there's usually no question that they have their credentials in order. That said, all it takes is a little research to make sure your school comes out on top. Other than that, what matters most is what will make you happy -- regardless of whether or not it tops the popularity charts.

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