On The Academy

Aaron Krach, Group, 2008. Courtesy the artist and Invisible-Exports.

A Buyer’s Guide to American Colleges

Rare is the college graduate who’s attended more than one school. But when you’ve attended four very different types of university, it’s incumbent upon you to share what you’ve learned.

A wise friend once told me that college should really be for learning how to do your own laundry, write a rent check, effectively pursue partners, use new drugs, read unassigned books, and appreciate a town other than your own. Unfortunately, he told me this last week. 

My educational career took me to four different types of American colleges—a small liberal arts college, a big state university, a community college, and an Ivy League graduate school. None of them brought me close to the exultation with which they were depicted in books and on TV. The following recommendations are based mainly on the ambience of each college, its cost-to-fun ratio, and resulting career prospects.

Small Liberal Arts School: Don’t buy

This reviewer attended a small college in the woods, far apart from any semblance of civilization. Classes were intimate and serious. The discussions were enjoyable, but this reviewer found not going to class more enjoyable.

Warning: A small college can be like a plastic bag over your head, tightening a bit each year.

Warning: A small college can be like a plastic bag over your head, tightening a bit each year. There’s no way to disappear, and yet self-absorption runs so high that no one will care if someone does go missing.

Most students at this reviewer’s college were rich but pretended not to be, thus post-graduate job hunting was not a shared priority among peers.

Popular hangout spots included the cafeteria and the lawn outside the cafeteria. The campus reeked of moss, peat, and weed. Typical weekend activities consisted of drinking hallucinogenic mushroom tea and going for nature walks, and also art projects and live-action role-playing. On that note, one should be careful not to live in the dorm that is specifically for live-action role-players. Beware too the preponderance of artists and righteousness at this type of college, and righteous artists. Very cold in the winter. Expensive. Liberal.

Big State School: Recommended

The big state school is usually very into its own athletic colors, whether they be emerald and black or an unflattering shade of orange. Generally, the geographical location of the campus will provide the basis for its hyperbolic landscaping: For example, if the college is near a forest or wooded lot, expect to see a bounty of pine trees, even in lobbies and bathrooms.

The big state school is recommended for students who want a literal fire under their ass to do something with their life. Going to a big state school is like being flung into the wilderness with no map and no food. One must learn survival skills, and quickly. It is recommended that one find a pack to travel and live with. One must find something to do so one doesn’t disappear, because in this case, if one does, no one will know or care. In this reviewer’s experience, this prepares one well for life after college.

Classes at the big state school varied wildly for this reviewer. In a nutrition class, the students were given Oreos to congratulate them on the close of the semester (“There’s actually a sixth food group,” the professor said on the last day of this class. “It’s Oreos”). In a mathematics course, the students were asked to calculate the volume of a can of green beans. In an American culture class, one student’s presentation about her dog’s birthday was met with rapturous applause. Byzantine course requirements encourage students to luxuriate in five or even six years of college, which is fine if you are paying in-state tuition, but not fine if you are paying out-of-state.

A big state school can offer fun and comforting amenities to its students, such as swimming pools, bowling alleys, and Chick-fil-As. However, most students choose not to utilize school-sanctioned amenities in favor of local bars.

It is recommended, but not necessary, to have school spirit at a big state school. One can choose either to lock oneself in a bedroom during football game weekends, or to start drinking at 10 a.m.

Community College: Recommended

The atmosphere of this reviewer’s community college was jovial. Buildings on campus were connected with breezy, open-air walkways through which some students elected to skateboard. Plaza-like spaces were dotted with vending machines for satiation and different-sized cacti for decoration.

At community college, the professor was very kind and smart and used cake metaphors to describe government.

In one section of a government class attended by this reviewer, there were working mothers, lapsed ranch hands, sorority girls, and at least one post-punk anarchist. The class cost $900, as compared to $3,600 at the local state university. This reviewer had attempted to take the course twice before at the university, but had to drop both 200-student sections; the first because the professor kept using the word “sexified” and the other because the professor liked to scream his lectures. At community college, the professor was very kind and smart and used cake metaphors to describe government. The section had 36 students.

Lasting friendships are difficult to cull from a community college experience. Though this reviewer attempted to forge bonds with various students, once the course ended those connections did, too.

This reviewer really has nothing bad to say about community college.

Ivy League College: Don’t Buy

The Ivy League college was managed very well and was very clean. There was never any garbage and the landscaping was quite pretty. Some of the computers were kind of old, but they always worked fine.

This reviewer was impressed by the grandness of the Ivy League college and sometimes just wanted to sit in the main quad and cry. This reviewer realizes, though, that she was reacting to a feeling manufactured by the college, which sells itself on its staid immensity of heart and mind. When thinking of all the people who have gone to an Ivy League college, who have walked its quad and looked up at its buildings’ massive cornices, it is easy to buy into the idea of the college.

The Ivy League college might be better if it did not have any students or faculty. For many Ivy-Leaguers, going to an Ivy League school may be the best thing they will ever do, thus, they won’t ever stop talking about it, even while they’re there. One must be prepared.

Classes at the Ivy League college were OK. Very hit or miss.


TMN Editor Leah Finnegan is from Illinois by way of Texas. She splits her time between New York City and her website. More by Leah Finnegan