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The College ‘Clean 15’


How would you like your child to graduate high school and enter a four-year career-training program that will have him graduating not just with no debt, but earning $54,000 for the final year of his studies with a guaranteed post-graduation job in a skilled, upward-mobility industry? I’m a mother. That’s not even a question. Neither is it a pipe dream: The Apprentice School for Navy shipbuilders is located in Newport News, Virginia, and has an admissions rate approximating that of Harvard University. For obvious reasons.

Despite the obvious attractions of such arrangements, and our historic dedication to the apprenticeship system (which, among other greats, molded our Benjamin Franklin), the United States has few such apprenticeship opportunities now. There are many reasons for this, among which I’d tag huge entry barriers such as minimum wage and minimum working-age laws (it costs Apprentice School sponsors $270,000 per apprentice), but a central one is certainly culture. Many Americans, including our political leaders from both parties, now cruelly and falsely insist that a college degree is a non-negotiable ticket to a middle-class life.

As Mike Petters, CEO of Huntington Ingalls, which owns the school, told The New York Times: “If you’re in the two-thirds of Americans that don’t have a college degree, how do you feel if someone says to be a success, you have to have it? It shouldn’t be a requirement for middle-class life. We have people in our organization who don’t and are great, who’ve raised families and had great lives.”

Our country is substituting for the nobility of honest work that anyone can aspire to a false nobility of credentialing that requires permission-checking from elites to obtain. One might recognize this as a distinctly authoritarian and inegaltarian view. In America, we don’t have royalty, and we used to look askance at people here who clothed themselves in its trappings. Now, we treat the credentialed as royalty, and my guess it’s because our pervasive progressivism teaches people to revere the “expert” and trust him to run their lives instead of stepping up to run our own ourselves. One way for people to re-assert their self-government is to honestly assess whether hopping on the college bandwagon is a genuinely good choice for them.

If You Must Go to College, Pick a Good One

That’s my opening caveat and caution to readers who choose to go further. Don’t take what I’m about to say as a suggestion that everyone go to college. It’s not. Every American deserves a quality K-12 education that negates the need to backfill with the liberal arts at the collegiate level. Almost nobody gets that, though, and while college isn’t for everyone that doesn’t mean no one should do it. So I present a list of good colleges for those who are suited to the pursuit. I’ll include some criteria on suitability later.

The Federalist readers generated a rather overwhelming response to my article last week about how more parents are discovering that college is a scam. Most asked about this portion:

True, my husband and I received a truly excellent education in college that was worth far more money or words can express. To my parents and scholarship donors (and even my husband’s college-loan originators) I am forever grateful. But the kind of real education I received at Hillsdale is increasingly rare, to the point that I recommend only about a dozen U.S. colleges to people looking for the real deal.

Of course, folks wanted to know the list of colleges I recommend. So it’s down at the bottom of this article. I’m calling it the “clean college 15” in reference to those Pinterest lists of fruits and veggies that are supposedly safe to buy non-organic because they don’t pick up pesticides as easily as others.

DirtyDozen1Before we get to the clean college 15, however, some notes and caveats.

My college list is not exhaustive. It is based on working for three years as a junior apprentice in Hillsdale College’s admissions office while a student there, reviewing academic records of applicants and performing other menial tasks, but these are all my own takeaways from that experience and reflect nothing whatsoever about Hillsdale’s policies or practices. It is also based on reviewing college resumes from some of the nation’s top colleges for interns and entry-level positions in several of my post-graduate jobs, in discussing undergraduate experiences with cross-country friends, and visiting dozens of campuses for collegiate debate and post-college speaking opportunities. Lastly, it’s based on helping friends and siblings and children of friends in their college search and application process, and in following the education world closely for four years (and counting) working as an education point-person at The Heartland Institute, a think tank.

There are certainly some good schools that are not on my list. I name the schools I know.

So I have had a lot more interaction with the higher-education world than most, but certainly not as in-depth as a college or high-school counselor. This means there are certainly some good schools that are not on my list. I name the schools I know.

For further reading and reviews of all these individual schools and several hundred more, I recommend a truly exhaustive reference book from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, “Choosing the Right College.” Thomas Sowell recommends it, so you know it’s good.

They not only include a guide to what college is for and how to evaluate one, but a review of several hundred institutions with specific professor and curriculum recommendations for achieving a genuine core at each school, whether the institution offers that specifically or not (if they don’t offer such a thing, that’s a big red flag, by the way, and the book will explain why). I would rather pick an institution where the quality and philosophical unity is more guaranteed and cohesive, but if for whatever reason your kids go to another place I would use that guide fervently.

My Clean College 15 List

The suitability of each particular college to a certain child will of course depend on that child’s particular academic interests and career inclinations. While a good broad liberal arts school will prepare a child for any pursuit, it’s just truth that some have stronger programs than others. Hillsdale’s math and physics departments, for example, were pretty sparse when my husband was a physics major as an undergraduate. I hear they’ve beefed up since, but it merits close inspection for those interested in that field. That experience applies to all these schools, as well, which will of course have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Ave Maria University
Baylor University’s great books program
The Torrey Honors program at Biola University
Cedarville University (if one must have teaching or other technical degree, Cedarville has some good programs)
The University of Dallas
Grove City College
Gutenberg College
Hillsdale College
Houston Baptist University
New Saint Andrews College
Patrick Henry College
Pepperdine University
St. John’s College (both campuses)
Wheaton College (with a caveat that it seems to be tilting quite Left in some departments)

You will note this list has only fourteen on it. Alas, I can’t falsely pad to fit the “clean 15” moniker, but the ISI book and parent gossip will generate other potential schools for you or your child. I would also send my child to a nearby state university if the goal were just to get a technical degree or some other performance of credential box-checking. But if we could afford it, and the child was academically inclined, I would go with a liberal arts degree first and the nursing or engineering degree afterwards as a master’s program. I don’t have the space here to explain why a genuine liberal arts degree is worth it for those to whom it’s suited, but suffice it to say I’m firmly in that camp.

Some Guidance About College Suitability

Speaking of affording college, my rule of thumb is that unless you are independently wealthy (meaning you can pay for your child to deserve Cs and Ds on genuine college-level work), if your child does not have high enough test scores or other features that will net him some merit or other scholarships (National Merit Scholarship, musical or artistic skill, etc.), your child probably isn’t a good fit for genuine college work. At a quality institution, this generally demands an ACT score of at least 27 or higher (the SAT equivalent is 1800-1850). I’d bend the rule a bit down to a 26 or 25 if the child shows other evidence of pointyheadedness or doesn’t test well.

Remember, average or close to it is not college-level, no matter what the loan-pushers tell you.

The national ACT average is about 21, and the national SAT average is about 1500 (500 in each subject). Remember, average or close to it is not college-level, no matter what the loan-pushers tell you. Students at this range of academic ability are perfectly lovely people who will contribute to society beautifully. They just aren’t the bean-counting type, for whom reading five hours a day sounds like fun. And that’s what a real college will make students do.

Have mercy on those kids and don’t demand that they attend a college that deserves the name where they will be miserable for four years doing things that don’t absorb their attention and therefore can’t pay off for the rest of life. Different strokes for different folks. Putting people through motions fit for other people is mean and counterproductive, no matter what the college preachers with self-serving motives (votes, more tuition income) tell you. The people who skip college for other opportunities can laugh at their college-degreed compatriots who are earning $28,000 teaching English and scrambling to divest themselves of student debt while they pay off a house in three years with their $54,000 post-apprenticeship starting salary.