A large group of my friends have kids going through the college search process. I am enjoying listening to them discuss the process and watching their searches evolve through Facebook and other mediums.
I also take special interest in all of this as I try to learn more about my day job in college admissions. It’s a guilty pleasure to be an observer, knowing what I know about how this process works.
Yet, most of the time, I am pretty reserved about pushing my friends and their kids to look at the place where I am employed—though after all it is a mighty fine college. I want to be respectful and I know it’s important to give a student a wide berth to navigate the process and make a personal decision. I give the parents an equal amount of space because I don’t want them ever to use “Mr. Barnds says…” when discussing this important decision with their kids.
However, I was recently involved in a conversation with someone who intimated that something I was considering doing professionally was too much of a long shot because the college where I work is ranked lower than some, and therefore I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Besides irritating me, the comment demonstrated the thinking that keeps people from considering places that might really be fabulous. I needed to take action.
So, I think it’s about time I introduced my friends to my employer, Augustana College. Read along if you want to learn more about the place where I’ve worked for 13 years and why it should be on your kid’s list.
Before I tell you more about Augustana College, I want to challenge your (and my) thinking about the college search. For years I’ve said that students should look for a place that offers:
- The right amount of challenge and support to succeed academically.
- An experience that allows for pursuing their passion outside the classroom.
- A place where they can see themselves fit in and grow.
- An affordable experience.
Most students and families also think about size, major, distance from home and cost—all good criteria. But as I get close to my own kids’ search for a college, I am starting to think differently. My thinking has been challenged more than I’d have thought, having been at this for nearly 27 years!
If I were going through this right now, these are the questions I would be asking my kid:
Will you find a mentor?
I read more and more about the importance of mentors in college and beyond, and it jibes with my experience. Mentors set students up for success. I cannot imagine investing in a college experience and not being able to look back on at least one person who was there at a meaningful moment or provide a gem of advice that led to a new discovery. This article, “Mentors play critical role in quality of university or college, new poll suggests,” is worth your time. Mentors are crucial to the “challenge and support” so necessary to students’ success.
Is the amount of debt manageable? And is the experience worth it?
There is panic about student loan debt and it’s true that many borrow too much. However, if you are at a middle-class income level and have the core belief that a college education should be debt-free, it would be better to reframe your thinking. It is always astonishing to me that students invest heavily in their kids in the form of camps, lessons, vacations and material things, but then become fiscally conservative when it comes to the most important investment one can make. Begin by asking whether the investment in a particular college is worth it. A student loan is not a bad decision, and for a private college education families and students can expect $25,000 to $30,000. Debt levels beyond that are problematic for many. “How much student loan debt is too much?” is an article worth reading.
Is the college committed to liberal arts education?
My wife Jennie and I are products of a liberal arts education, and believe the rewards of such an education are immeasurable. I pay attention to the general education program at any college and what it seeks to accomplish. And, in case you are curious, general education is not something just to “get through”; it’s the space where students learn new things, make connections and learn how to keep making connections, and have their convictions, imaginations and opinions stretched in uncomfortable ways. I am persuaded by the data showing that CEOs and other leaders value the skills developed and associated with their liberal arts education. I believe my kids will not just land jobs, but keep advancing in their chosen careers because of the skills they will acquire. The article “Liberal arts is the foundation for professional success in the 21st Century” reinforces how important this point is.
Is the college serious about students being career-ready at the end of four years?
Parents are serious about their students’ career preparation, and I have similar expectations. I pay attention to a college’s orientation toward career and professional development. But helping a student put together a cover letter and résumé, and hosting an annual job fair does not amount to the type of seriousness I am looking for; that’s superficial, not serious. This is a really helpful blogpost, “How to evaluate a college’s career services,” that I highly recommend.
Will the college expose students to diversity in all of its forms?
Preparing students and graduates to embrace our diverse and changing world has always been important, and now we recognize this more than ever. Colleges that understand this are certain to more effectively prepare students for life. Jennie and I chose to enroll our children in an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school district because we know how important it is to experience, be a part of and appreciate cultural difference. I am sure the same will be true of my children’s college search. “The importance of cultural diversity in the workplace” is a blog post that reinforces why it is important to seek and experience diversity in college.
Is the college oriented toward getting to know students, or is it a factory for education?
Small classes, excellent advising and individual attention are important to me, and in my view should be important to all parents. The learning that happens in a large lecture hall is simply not equal to the learning that happens in a small classroom setting. Active participation in one’s learning is critically important and it happens in small classes and at places where professors, administrators and staff members are serious about getting to know their students. I found this to be a pretty good article, and I invite you review: “Why small classes are better in college.”
Is the college a place where a support network can help during a crisis, large or small?
In college, my crisis was being placed on academic probation because of poor academic performance. My parents never threatened to pull me out of college, never called the professor to make things easier for me. It was my crisis to deal with. But, I also found myself with a support network of friends who encouraged me. Moreover, the professor in whose class I struggled for three consecutive semesters took an interest in my success and helped in every way—including pulling a few string to make sure I was able to study in Spain, because that was, he said, “the only way you’ll learn the language and graduate from college.” By the way, studying in Spain stretched me well beyond what I thought imaginable, but that’s for another day. This is my story, but as a parent I know that every student will experience a similar moment. So I pay attention to signals that suggest a college can equip my kid with the coping skills and grit to get through it, and if needed, with the help of someone there who will listen, care and perhaps provide a little tough talk. This is the stuff that promotes success and resiliency in a career.
I hope you noticed that I am not paying attention to rankings, which are downright silly. Nor am I paying attention to athletics division or Greek Life. And I didn’t mention a thing about school colors, sweatshirts or mascots.
Nope, I am zeroing in the things that lead to a great experience and success following college. These are the things that genuinely matter, to my mind.
So, now please allow me to introduce you to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where I’ve been working since 2005. We are an undergraduate college of liberal arts and sciences with an enrollment of 2,600 students. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and are high-performers in the classroom. The college is located in a metropolitan, diverse, fun and prosperous community of about 400,000. If you want a little more of the boilerplate narrative, you can read and explore here.
Of course, what I really want to do is provide you with my unfiltered thoughts about this amazing college and what we do. Here it goes…
Augie’s been around a long time and our graduates have done some amazing things—Not only are my mother and uncle graduates of Augustana, we’ve had some pretty distinguished people graduate from the place and make their impact in the world. Sure, we’ve had a couple of Nobel Price winners. And then there is Brenda Barnes, who shocked the corporate world when she left the position of CEO of PepsiCo to spend time raising her children. Ken Anderson played football at “little old Augustana” and then went on to earn a law degree and become the MVP of the National Football League while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. We count eight college presidents among our graduates. Right now a recent graduate is working to rehab computers for the school she started in Kenya, built on land she purchased from money she saved while working in Augustana’s dining center. Current students are poised to make a difference in a world that needs them. If you want to know where they begin their paths right out of college, see “More Than I Imagined” on our website.
The campus is ridiculously gorgeous—Augustana’s campus is absolutely beautiful. Seriously, it is consistently recognized for its beauty. Thrillist recognized Augustana as one of the Top 25 Most Beautiful Campuses. When one steps foot on campus, it’s impossible to overlook the natural and architectural beauty. If you doubt me, here are some photos. I believe there is something valuable to learning and living in an inspiring environment.
We get the liberal arts thing right—The term “liberal arts” and the concept of what a liberal arts college does can be confusing. Sadly, the first thing that comes to mind for too many when they think of liberal arts colleges is small and expensive, or politically liberal, or too focused on the arts. None of these is necessarily true. At Augustana College we have a clear idea of what it means to be a liberal arts college. We focus on those skills a student acquires by studying at a liberal arts college. We’ve clearly defined Nine Student Learning Outcomes around which we’ve built our curriculum. Moreover, we specifically focus on the skills that employers want. Our students leave Augustana as keen problem identifiers, effective problem solvers, exceptional communicators, and critical and creative thinkers—all of which prepares them for professional success in the 21st century.
We are very serious about career and professional development—In the last decade we’ve completely reimagined our approach to career and professional development to make sure our graduates are profession-ready and will stand out to graduate schools and employers. We approach career and professional development in a comprehensive way and understand that advising, career and life reflection, career coaching, and high-impact learning opportunities such as research, study abroad, service learning and internships intersect as students navigate their own career-readiness. We’ve known this for some time, and have centralized these functions and services and resources within CORE. It’s called CORE because it’s located in the center of our campus and it’s at the heart of what we do. And, one of the most effective tools within CORE is the Viking Score, which helps a student (and parent) know and pursue the activities, from the first year in college to the last, that truly prepare graduates to be career-ready.
Employees—faculty, administrators and staff—take time to get to know students and create conditions for success—We focus exclusively on undergraduate students and are staffed predominately by full-time employees who have made an intentional choice to work in this setting. This enables us to focus on the personal and educational development of students ages 18 to 22. We understand their developmental psychology and take our role seriously in meeting them where they are, finding out what makes them tick, and helping them succeed at maturing into their best selves. Personal attention is inadequate to describe what we do. There is a deep care for the success of our students. When I visit with alumni, I am always reminded that our graduates are more interested in their former mentors than they are in the new programs, fancy buildings or the details of our strategic plan.
We are really good at the big things that matter in a college experience—We recently completed some stakeholder (current students, current parents, alumni and faculty) psychographic research, which revealed that people view Augustana as “competent.” At first we were underwhelmed by being described as competent—it’s a bit like being told you’ve got a nice personality. But there’s something to be said for being competent in a world of incompetence, snubs, mistakes and misses. We get the big things right. Our faculty are excellent teachers and advisors. Our students graduate on time (in four years), inspired and prepared.
We’ve invested in being a diverse and welcoming place—We know that today’s students identify race relations as one of the most challenging and important issues our country faces. We also know that our graduates, no matter where they come from or where they land after Augustana, will live in a more diverse world than their parents. We know our students and graduates must have a deep understanding and appreciation of diversity in all its forms. So we’ve invested time, effort and resources to make build a diverse and welcoming and community where we can discuss issues related to diversity inside and outside the classroom. Ten percent of our enrollment is international, and students of color comprise another 25%. About one-third of our students will be the first in their family to graduate from college. Different cultures, perspectives and experiences are valued here, creating a fertile environment to prepare our students to value and cherish diversity throughout their career.
We offer a merit-scholarship program and need-based financial aid that makes Augie affordable, and a great value in comparison to many schools with similar attributes—Our merit-based scholarships make Augustana doable for many families looking for the type of experience we offer, and who want to see their student rewarded for academic excellence. Great students may be eligible for a scholarship of up to $26,000 annually. In addition to a merit-scholarship program that recognizes academic achievement, our need-based financial aid program makes Augustana accessible to families from all socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, one out of four of our students receives the federal PELL Grant. We are serious about all students’ academic excellence and access to a high-quality education in the liberal arts and sciences.
Faculty members are student-focused teachers and mentors, and good at the type of scholarship that matters at the undergraduate level—Too many people underestimate the value of engaged teaching and mentoring, even though there is plenty of evidence that college students with a great mentor are far more likely to succeed after college. Mentoring matters and our faculty are excellent mentors. Furthermore, our faculty place teaching first among their priorities. They constantly refine teaching methods to make sure they are connecting with and accountable to today’s students. It’s pretty amazing to witness the seriousness of their work. Here is just one example of many. Finally, the faculty members focus predominantly on scholarship and research that includes and involves students. It’s through these experiences that Augustana students uncover their potential to identify and solve problems—often real problems faced by their home communities or those that surround the college. This emphasis on involving students in scholarship means our faculty don’t hide in labs with graduate students, but instead are front and center sharing their knowledge and recognizing that Augustana students can help advance their work.
We are a national leader when it comes to balancing excellence inside and outside the classroom—We also understand the importance of balancing classroom and out-of-classroom commitment and our outstanding results in producing Academic All-Americans is evidence. We rank in the top 10 in the country, among all NCAA colleges and universities in all divisions, in producing and inspiring Academic All-Americans. There are only a handful of schools better in this area. Whether it’s musicians, actors, student government associates, volunteers in the community or club officers, Augustana students learn to excel in the many ways important to who they are and what they want to do.
We have a program that provides every student up to $2,000 for a peak learning experience— Regardless of GPA, major or anything else, every student has access to $2,000 through this amazing program called Augie Choice to support study abroad, student research and scholarship, or an internship. Programs like Augie Choice provide students with a transformative experience they won’t get elsewhere. $2,000 to support a high impact experience that gets their résumé noticed is worth it.
Our location provides meaningful experiential learning opportunities that most students will not get in a small town and probably not even in a big city—The Quad Cities is large enough to offer our students really meaningful internship and employment opportunities, but small enough that the best employers and internship providers seek out Augustana students and graduates. The bottom line is that our students and graduates have more access to hands-on experiences that will make them stand out because of the amazing resource of the Quad Cities. Furthermore, the Quad Cities is a lot like the United States in regard to the socioeconomic and ethnic mix, as well as the urban, suburban and rural mix that defines our country. It is a valuable place to live, work, play and learn.
Our students have the opportunity to be a part of something and take it further—Leadership opportunities on campus are plentiful and meaningful. With about 200 student organizations, students can find their interests, discover new ones, develop as leaders and apply their problem-solving skills to the issues they care about most.
One more thing: I remain convinced that the world needs Augustana graduates because of how they think, what they know, what they do and how they do it. Your student deserves to be needed as much.
Augustana is worth your time and consideration. If you are still reading this and you want me to be your connection, let me know. I will answer your questions, give you a campus tour, or simply put you in touch with someone at Augustana who is more entertaining than I am.