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An Interview with Maria Furtado, Colleges That Change Lives

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To find the right college, start with introspection and then find your people, says Maria Furtado of Colleges that Change Lives.

Back in 1996, Loren Pope first published his watershed book, Colleges that Change Lives, which aimed to help students and parents take a values-driven approach to choosing a college. With a student-centered focus on “educating the undergraduate”, determining best fit, and championing the liberal arts, Pope’s philosophy encourages students to dig deep into their own personal passions as the foundation of the college search. Once a college’s “must haves” have been determined through this personal introspection, a student’s practical research can begin.

Today, Colleges that Change Lives is not just a book, but a nonprofit organization that continues Pope’s original mission. Focusing on 40+ colleges included in the book’s updated edition (2012), the organization works to advocate liberal arts education through meet-and-greet tours with member colleges and prospective students, a scholarship program, and college counselor support.

The Edmit team recently spoke with Maria Furtado, executive director of Colleges that Change Lives, to discuss how students and parents can take a values-centered approach to their own college research and application process.

Edmit: How can students and parents determine whether a college is a good fit?

Furtado: I always look at the bigger message of being student-centered: The student has to have some conversations internally or externally about what they really like. That introspective piece has to be first, and then you can make the list of colleges. While it’s great to have that list—the list is tangible, and you’re making progress--if you can take the time to be introspective first, you’ll also make a more comprehensive list!

Find your people: Think about your five to 10 closest friends. What do you all love to do together? If you and your friends are all into theater, volunteering through your church or synagogue, athletics, then look at that particular community at the schools you’re considering.

Do you and your friends stay up all night painting sets, running lines, marking up a stage? Then look at the drama and theater opportunities on campus, and not just as a major or minor. Look at theater extracurriculars: Are there student-written or student-directed short plays, or is it a place where they have an improv group?

If it’s appealing to you, then it’s appealing to people like you, then you’ll find your group and you’ll have your people to get and connect to. Students should think about how they’ve created their own networks and then try to replicate that [at college].

If your biggest joy is to go out and get on the water and kayak or canoe, or if you like to hike, and then you choose a school in Manhattan, then you’ve put yourself in a tough spot to find ways to balance your life. If your greatest love is skiing, and you choose a school in the South, you’ll then have to figure out how to squeeze in a 10-hour drive to go ski.

Edmit: So we’ve covered cultural fit. How can students and parents determine whether a college is a good financial fit?

Furtado: The best thing a student can be is above average in the college’s [applicant] pool, not in their own high school class. So the better their achievement compared to other students in the incoming class, the more likely they’ll get merit-based aid, especially if the college can only meet need at the top or the middle of the incoming class. [Colleges] will not woo students at the bottom of the class.

They need to fill their whole class and have a variety of students, but the best place to be is if the school’s average is 3.3 GPA and 1100 out of 1600 on the SAT, and you’re a 3.6 or 3.7 GPA with a 1500 SAT score, you’re more likely to get merit-based aid and need-based aid--if you have need.

Edmit: How should students and parents approach traditional college rankings (U.S. News, Princeton Review, etc.) in their own college research process?

Furtado: If a ranklng system’s values are exactly the same as your family’s values, then they’re perfect for you. If they’re not the same, then it’s not a perfect ranking system. U.S. News is skewed toward urban schools and schools that are already well known because of the reputational piece, and that’s choosing who responds to the survey, which can impact results.

I think rankings can be an easy tool because something has been done and put things in order, but it’s only worthwhile if it matches what you value. For example, if a student is really focused on interacting with faculty, and wants measurements on how college students interact with faculty at a given school, then the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE) is probably a good ranking to use.

But if a ranking system doesn’t match what you value, then it’s just a tool, and you have to step back and say “what are my main six values, what am I looking for in an institution? Does this ranking [system] address it, and if not, who does?”

Edmit: For students and parents who are completely overwhelmed, do you have any tried-and-true tips for making the college research and application process more manageable?

Furtado: Yes, I always advocate three things: One, it’s about the car. When parents get in the car and the doors lock and they hear that locking noise, they think “we’re trapped in the car and we’ll have to talk about college.” But if students and parents can carve out places that are college-free zones and they don’t talk about it, it relieves some of the pressure. So the car can be one place, the dinner table could be another.

Two: Designate specific times and places to talk about college. If a family uses a calendar to schedule time to talk about it, college doesn’t become every conversation. So many families spend all of 18 months talking about college, and it doesn’t have to be that way--especially when there are younger kids in the family, who I’m sure would like to talk about something else!

Three: I understand there is a financial implication to this--but try to visit as many campuses to get a sense of what the place is really like. All the brochures and websites are beautiful, but that in-person experience is invaluable. And try to schedule some downtime away from campus to unwind and take some of the pressure off. Try, as a family, to do something that they find relaxing near campus--hike, see a movie, browse an independent bookstore, go hear live music--whatever works so that every day they can refresh themselves and see each college more clearly.  




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