With the beginning of the new school year (and the attendant flood of "here's my snowflake's first day of Xth grade" pics on Facebook) it's dawned on me that - sigh - some of my high school classmates now have KIDS old enough to be on the cusp of going to college. Rather than wallow in my ever-increasing proximity to death, I thought it would be more productive to funnel this angst into something useful - a primer on picking a school for students interested in a career in the sciences (this includes vocational schools, like PT, dental and med school as well). As a scientist, I've traveled from the esophagus to the anus of the educational system, and (pardon the pun) I've seen some shit along the way.
Cutting Through Marketing Bullshit
A lot of the differences in colleges and universities are minor things, window dressings that admission departments use to make their institution stand out. Our high school counseling corp have, for decades, brainwashed rising seniors that EVERYONE MUST GO to college. Universities are well aware of this, and their craving for those sweet federal financial aid dollars make them bend over backwards to attract hungry new minds and wallets.
But I'm not writing about the student loan bubble today. Picking schools is a big decision, and it can fuck you up forever by putting you on a path that becomes increasingly difficult to abandon (sunk costs, etc.). For this reason, it is critical to put yourself in a place where success is at least possible. While I don't know much about what makes a business program good, I do know a bit about where an aspiring scientist should place themselves.
To get down to it:
Teaching Schools vs Research Schools
The first step is bringing order to the school selection process. There are thousands of colleges, and you can only be seriously expect to focus on a few. In my experience, most high school students seem to be considering odd mishmashes of schools where they would have very different experiences. Let's simplify picking a school by breaking all schools into two categories.
For me, the first selection in choosing a school is made based on orientation of the school towards research versus education. This may sound a little weird - I just implied that there's a class of universities that aren't primarily focused on educating students. Actually, that's exactly what I'm saying. Oddly, these are usually the "best" schools (per US News, at least). Bear with me and this will become clear.
Teaching schools can be public or private. These places are, unsurprisingly, primarily focused on teaching; faculty members gain tenure based on service and classroom performance, not how much grant money they bring in or their national profile as a researcher. I would assume that most of the tenured faculty at these places would be decent educators. The downside of these places would be the lack of opportunities. In the biomedical sciences, there's a paltry amount of external funding coming in, so the chances you'll get to see what real research looks like are pretty bad. That's gonna hurt you later, as you'll be at an experiential disadvantage to someone who attended a Research University.
Research schools are those that have extensive R&D infrastructure. There aren't too many of these schools, maybe a hundred (and that may be pushing it I think; if, after reading this, you have a question about what a school is, assume it's a research school.). Big flagship state schools are usually research schools, i.e., "The University of [State]", with no additional directional modifiers (enrollment does not make a research school, exception being decent-sized places where grad enrollment exceeds undergrad, ex: CalTech). Private research schools are places like the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, CalTech, etc. Typically, these places are harder to get into than teaching institutions.
The good part about research schools are the opportunities. If you want to work on a NASA mission, it's likely going to come at a major research institution, not a local community college or small state school. Likewise, if you want a taste of cutting-edge lab research, you can definitely get a good up-close look at it here. The bad part about research universities is that teaching low level students (i.e., undergrads) is a distant priority, unsurprising when you consider that most of the revenue is derived from research grants. A Nobel laureate is not expected to see a classroom when he's already bringing in 1 million+ in external research funding. Teaching Intro to Evolution would be a wasted effort. As such, these schools rely on adjunct faculty (temporary, low-paid teachers) or disgruntled professors who get roped into it to do the grunt work. These people may or may not be any good. I've had both. Classroom education doesn't get much better at the graduate level; you do get more profs teaching here, but they mostly just recycle slides from their own research interests into one or two classroom lectures.
The Weird Part
Both types of schools will lie to you by implying that they're the opposite type. Teaching schools will imply they have amazing research programs (nah, you're going to be counting frogs in a pond with the chair of their ecology department) and research places will convince you that a Fields Medal winner will be teaching your physics class (even if this did happen, you would not want to take a test constructed by this person).
My thoughts on Selecting Research vs Teaching Institutions (and other random thoughts)
Once you've made a decision on research vs teaching, life gets more simple. You can play the best-school-I-can-get-into game or pick one close or far away from home (depending on how much you love your parents and/or high school girlfriend). I'll leave that to the guidance counselors.
There is a tremendous amount of bias in college selection from adults, much of this from people who are partial to their alma maters. Take this into account.
If you're serious about going into cutting-edge research one day, go to a big research school. What you'll learn in a classroom pales in comparison to the experiential learning you'll gain by being in a laboratory. You'll have to be proactive to seek it out, but learning to be proactive is a critical component of later success, in my experience. Moreover, a big school degree will be recognized even if you don't go into grad school. Everyone knows the University of Michigan, but not everyone has heard of Oberlin. Even though both are good places, one is national and one is regional. Full disclosure: Every phase of my scientific training was at a big school. You should assume I'm biased.
If you don't know what the fuck you're doing, go to an academic school. The goal of any postsecondary education where you're paying the bill is to make enough money to pay off your debt. I'll say it again: your top priority entering college is to maximize the chances you come out with a degree. If you lack confidence in your academic abilities, study habits, or ability to handle the stress of college, a smaller, more personalized (and possibly less rigorous) school is for you. It is very, very easy to drown in the complex offerings and massive lecture halls of an elite research university. As a simpleton with poor learning habits, I just barely survived one of these places (and know several people who didn't).
If you're not sure whether university life is for you, go to a community college. No academic snobbery here, I'm a big fan of junior college. Sweet, sweet junior college, good for all the reasons I mentioned above, and oh-so-cheap. If you're a weak student in high school, a good strategy might be two years of additional development. Then, with an improved GPA, a transfer to a major state school. Some states (Texas and California, for example) have programs where entry to a four-year school is guaranteed if you follow this route. Big money saver and usually just as good a result.
Never get a science PhD from a teaching school. It will likely be worthless. Should be self-evident.
Never pay anything close to full price for a teaching school that's private. Also obvious, I'd think, and yet these schools seem to be everywhere.
Admissions are a crapshoot at elite schools. Duke took 8.7% of applicants last year. That is absurdly competitive. Apply in volume if you're intent on playing Game of Thrones, college edition.
Last but not least, I give the most generic advice for the high school superstars. This isn't tailored advice, but it won't fuck anyone up: If you can, go a top fifteen school. Not top twenty. Anything below Northwestern will not impress anyone enough to make up for the money or effort it will take to go there. If you can't do that, then go for your best in-state public school. If you can't make that, go for any large (size-wise) state school that has a decent football team. That way you're at least guaranteed that future employers will recognize your school.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.