An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first visited Arizona State University (ASU) in 2015. Its longtime moniker was “the party school.” It admitted (and still admits) more than 90% of its applicants. It was (and still is) the largest university in the country. In many ways, it was — and still is — the opposite of Lakeside.

I left ASU two days later convinced it was one of the most impressive institutions of higher education in the country.

During that two-day visit, I was wowed by the students. They were goal oriented and spoke passionately about learning. Many were devising innovative solutions to global problems. I spoke with students in the School of Sustainability who were working to increase access to fresh water around the globe. They had built a filtration system that purified water for communities in underdeveloped countries. To ensure the sustainability of this solution, they traveled to and taught these communities how to build the filtration system.

When I toured Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, which recruits academically outstanding undergraduates across the nation, I was struck by its voluminous number of Fulbright Scholars. Since 2010, they have had 76 scholars. For comparison, Yale has had 43 and Harvard 57.

I was also wowed by the university’s embrace of educational innovation. Project-based learning is the norm at its Polytechnic campus, which is focused on interdisciplinary sciences, engineering, management, technology and education. Its Public Service Academy develops leaders for the nonprofit sector through careful integration of classroom learning and fieldwork. The examples abound and many — including New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote about ASU last fall — are noticing.

ASU is a university with a lot to offer. But when I suggest it to Lakesiders, they frequently dismiss it, despite knowing little or nothing about it. “I’ve never heard of it,” is a common refrain. Or, “Someone told me it’s just a big party school,” (though they usually can’t remember who that someone was). In other cases, they’ll say, “My parents told me it’s not a good school.”

It’s an outdated assumption, based on incorrect data — a finding that would never be accepted in a classroom.

Yet, with colleges, our students frequently make this kind of claim. Over time, I hope this will change. As Jerry Selingo, former editor of the “Chronicle of High Education” points out in his first book, “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” many of the most innovative and progressive educational measures are occurring at schools that are unfamiliar to our students. The most prestigious schools don’t need to be creative or change; families will pay for the brand names alone. But what’s more valuable: a brand name or a high-quality, stimulating, and contemporary education? The answer is a matter of personal preference. I prefer the latter.

How can students and families learn about some of the unknown or hidden college gems? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Visit an unfamiliar college. If you and your student are traveling near a college with which you’re unfamiliar, swing by their admissions office. Ask about their unique programs. Walk around campus — take a guided tour if time permits. Even if your student decides the school isn’t the best fit, you’ll both learn about quality opportunities.
  • Introduce your student to friends and colleagues who didn’t attend the “most prestigious schools.” Not only is this a chance for students to learn about different institutions, it’s a chance for them to expand their definition of “success.” One of the many reasons our students hesitate to consider unfamiliar schools is because they often lack happy and successful role models who didn’t attend brand-name institutions.
  • Look at meaningful rankings and data points. This does not include the “U.S. News and World Report” rankings, which educators have repeatedly debunked as based on criteria unrelated to educational quality. Instead:
    • Peruse the directory of Fulbright Scholars. I’m consistently amazed by the diversity of colleges from which scholars hail.
    • Look at alumni satisfaction surveys (one example is The Alumni Factor) that provide data on how alumni rate their college experiences, by school, in a variety of areas.
    • Review the list of schools, by discipline, that send the highest percentage of alumni on to Ph.D. programs.
    • Consider which schools have produced the highest number of Fortune 500 CEOs. In a recent study, University of Wisconsin topped the list.
    • Read which colleges produce the most Peace Corps Volunteers and Teach for America educators. While these lists are not compiled every year, they are still effective ways of seeing the success at which colleges send students to two selective nonprofit organizations.
    • Review the sending institutions to top graduate programs — for example, the list of colleges represented in Harvard Law School’s entering class this past fall. For students with a specific graduate-school related career goal, this is a great way to see the many undergraduate pathways to getting there.
  • Research liberal arts colleges. Nationwide, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what “liberal arts” means. Our students often dismiss liberal arts schools because they want to study science. Liberal arts refer to breadth of curriculum, including science. At many liberal arts colleges, the sciences are the most popular majors (for example, at Bowdoin College, 40% of students major in the sciences). And access to research opportunities often exceeds that of research universities where professors frequently prioritize graduate students in selecting research assistants. The schools that send the highest percentage of alumni to Ph.D. programs in STEM fields are liberal arts colleges.

If all of this feels overwhelming, another option is to wait to start learning about colleges until your student is assigned a college counselor in junior year. Introducing students and their parents/guardians to higher education opportunities is one of my favorite facets of my job. Students (and parents/guardians) who are uninterested in exploring colleges earlier are not disadvantaged by waiting until 11th grade. But for those who do begin sooner, it’s important that both the student and their parents/guardians broaden their horizons and approach the process with openness and a sense of discovery.

Ari Worthman is Lakeside’s director of college counseling. Reach him at