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My friend, counsel, and trusted advisor Whitney Hoffman mentioned on Facebook this morning that she’s started the process of looking at colleges for her eldest, and that got me thinking: what would you actually look for in a college today? After all, especially at the 2 and 4 year degree level, the “brand” of the degree is fairly irrelevant. I’ve had the chance and fortune to speak with literally thousands of people over the years and found that the college name on the degree isn’t any guarantee of the person’s ability to succeed or fail.

So what would you look for in a college today if you were about to make the largest investment in your financial and personal history besides buying a house? (and hey, if it’s a foreclosure sale, the college degree might even exceed that)

A bit of history. I went to a very small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania named Franklin & Marshall College. Back in the day, F&M had 3 things going for it that many of the competing colleges didn’t. First, it had air conditioning in its dorms and a lot of its competitors didn’t. As silly as that sounds, it was a proxy indicator that they focused on the student. Second, it was one of the first colleges back in the early 90’s that had computer networks in the dorm. Granted, it was PhoneNet (a dirt cheap, deathly slow alternative to Ethernet) but it was still better than even the best engineering schools at the time, save MIT. Third, it left you a lot of room in your schedule. Some of the best classes I took in college were things like Music History, Theatre Lighting Design, and Islam 101, things that gave me a much greater appreciation of the world and how to work in it.

Today, the world itself is radically different (yet strangely the same). In business, we value creativity, productivity, thinking outside the box, innovation, entrepreneurship, and profitability. In life, we value making the most of what we have (because things like 10 year recessions tend to make you have less), appreciating the now, and planning ahead. Many of these skills, frankly, can’t be taught in a college classroom or any classroom. They can, however, be given fruitful grounds to frequently expose students to the ideas.

Some crazy questions I’d ask today: Is the college enrolled in iTunes U or a similar program? If so, take some of the course materials in advance and see if they’re teaching like drones manufacturing robots or if a substantial portion of the lecture is discussion and debate, especially in the 300 and 400 level classes. Participating in a program like iTunes U also shows a certain level of progressive thinking on the administration’s part, an acknowledgement that there is a world outside their campus.

How do the professors see themselves? Do they still feel they are the arbiters and gatekeepers of information, or do they view themselves as guides, mentors, and coaches in the fields of study, acknowledging that their job is to help students analyze, filter, and critically think about what the Internet hands them? These days, anyone who still thinks they’re a gatekeeper of information in the age of Google is badly deluding himself or herself.

How easy is it for students to audit classes and how many students do so? If I wanted to drop in, Steve Jobs style, a calligraphy class, could I do that easily? Is there a process in place, and is that process sensible? For example, if I were a first year student, I’d sure want to check out the business administration’s marketing courses and see if marketing was at all intriguing.

How are students taught to collect, process, and actualize information? Are they still scribbling notes furiously in class or are they doing something else? I’ve had the chance to guest teach at Bentley University as well as teach online with the University of San Francisco, and many students are still just doing data dumps without transforming that knowledge into something usable. Ask to see how students are taught to take notes. Do they still just scribble down words, or are they using tools like mind maps and other alternative information processing formats?

How many students feel that their papers are so valuable and so well written that they’ve put them up for sale as books in the Amazon Kindle or CreateSpace stores? Talk about a strange question, but at the same time, if you find a college that has more than just a handful of students doing this, then you know that college is teaching its students to think WAY outside the box. If you have students publishing books on a regular basis and succeeding at earning a few dollars, you’ve got something really special there.

Find the local real-life (as opposed to online) protest board on campus. (worry if the college doesn’t have one) See what students are being activists and protesting about. See how many of the protests have a web site up, a Facebook page, an interactive online campaign, etc. – something that indicates the students have the sense and drive to take real action. The more innovative and creative the protests are, the more you know the students are using their tools and talents to their potential. Check out some of their websites and online protest platforms. Do they look good? Did the students exert maximum effort about something they care about?

There are, of course, plenty of other questions to be asked and answered in the college admissions process, but looking back over the last 20 years since I first starting looking at colleges, the world has changed at a ridiculous pace. The education that you’re considering buying today had better have changed with it.

Amusing side note: I went back and found my first college computer that I owned, a Macintosh Centris 650. I was so proud of that thing back in the day, and then I found the specs on it. 25 MHz 68040 processor and a whopping 4 MB of RAM. Now consider that my aging iPhone 4 has a 1 GHz processor and 512 MB of eDRAM and see how much power you have now.

Strangely, Photoshop still takes about the same amount of time to load today that it did in college.

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