Choosing a college: The pros and cons of being far from home
It’s Ski Week here in California, and many of my juniors are taking advantage of their vacation to visit colleges. A lot of students prioritize distance from home when making their college list; either they want to stay within a close drive, or they are chomping at the bit to get as far away as possible! Especially with students who have a strong opinion about location, I ask them to back up for a bit before I suggest colleges to visit. What’s really behind that desire to stay close, or to go far?
Some students want to stay close to home because they have ongoing family duties to fulfill. Other students have health challenges (or family members with health challenges) that necessitate staying close. For some, the cost of plane tickets to and from college is prohibitive, or immersion in a less-common religious or cultural community makes resettling elsewhere a challenge. This background info is all very useful to me when it comes to suggesting colleges; we can then turn to the question of how far a drive is considered “local.” But in reality, many students I work with don’t have answers like these.
Students staying close to home for college may miss out
For students who base that decision on fear or a desire to stay within their comfort zone, I encourage them to consider whether their existing comfort zone is a blessing or a crutch. When a friend’s daughter got into a top-tier university 30 minutes from home, the family was thrilled – and when she had a rocky start due to a bad roommate situation, the student moved back home for the semester because it was easier. As the weeks went on and the student settled back in at home, it became easier for her to withdraw into her safety net than to battle through the social and academic craziness that is freshman year. Three years later, the student is still living at home; removing herself from the campus community negatively impacted her ability to make friends, join organizations, and build a lasting network to help her take advantage of her brand-name college after graduation. On the other hand, I can tell you endless stories about nervous kids who flew across the country for college who flourished and thrived, after an adjustment period lasting from 3 hours to three years. If proximity to home gives you the option of taking the easy way out, will you have the fortitude to challenge yourself to grow?
How much does college location impact social life?
For students who are itching to get away, I applaud their confidence and energy, but remind them that zip code is only one factor to consider. Whether you go to college in Boston or rural Montana, Saturday is likely to consist of brunch in the dining hall, a study session at a local coffee shop, tossing a Frisbee in the afternoon sun, dinner with friends, and a party/a cappella concert/Tina Fey movie marathon in the dorm. Most college students do the same things, regardless of how far they are from home.
No matter where students go to college, their worlds are going to dramatically change overnight. Especially for students moving to residential colleges, roommates and new friends and clubs and dining halls will redefine “extracurricular” and “social life.” Academic life will be equally different, as the calendar structure of college coursework is much less regimented than in high school, requiring more independent management and collaboration with other students. In college, classes no longer run from 8-3, extracurriculars are no longer 3-6, and friends become family.
In short: many students find that the familiarity or contrast of their collegiate location has very little to do with distance from home. In the end, distance is just one of many factors that contribute to the college experience.
And parents, remember – when a student has done a very thoughtful search resulting in enrollment at a good fit college, it’s a good thing when that campus becomes their home. The less they come back, the more invested (and hopefully happier) they are in their new environment. It might hurt – my mom cried the first time I said “going home” and meant returning to campus – but it means they’re doing well and growing up.