Review of Colleges that Change Lives

Bottom Line: Colleges that Change Lives is a refreshing and re-invigorating look at the college guide genre. It suffers from a lack of California options and frank discussions on financial aid.

Most books in the college guide genre have money sign logos indicating that a school is a “great value”, fun-fact information boxes and admissions stats right below each entry’s name. Colleges that Change Lives by Lauren Pope eschews all that in favor of a novel approach. Purposefully, this book asks its readers to contemplate each college individually through an elegantly written narrative. Each college is described through its setting and the words of its teachers and students. No attention is put on its score in the national ranking and admission statistics are mentioned only to give hope to those who are interested in applying.

Colleges that change lives has renewed my belief in a liberal arts education. In these past three years since graduating, it has become easy to get caught up in the hype over technical education, “fast-track” degree options and MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses). News reports highlight college students with a high amount of debt and high level of underemployment. Many of the schools in this book have a required 1st year curriculum. They laugh at that idea of underclass courses as “GEs you get out of the way”. In these schools, first year courses are a chance to become intellectually stimulated, time to spend pondering the biggest questions humankind has ever faced.

I am fortunate to have attended a college with a comparable experience to that in the book. I took the CORE interdisciplinary critical thinking course sequence, built amazing relationships with my professors and lived in a dorm ranked number 1 in the nation by the Princeton Review.

This book reminds me to always introduce liberal arts colleges as an option, particularly in my community of Huntington Park, where they might not be as well known. Students need to focus on finding their fit, which might be closer to the colleges listed in the book instead of the “big name” schools of USC and UCLA.

My criticism of this book comes in the fact that “only” one college is from California. To me I feel it makes it seemed biased and it reduces its usefulness in my everyday work. For many reasons, there are always students here who are going to want to stay locally and who need  the money a Cal Grant can give them.

When doing my junior action plan, this book has been absolutely instrumental when figuring out how to best serve Jesse Gomez. This is a student with a 2~ GPA but that seemed willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. He showed his potential by having a 20 on the ACT, the 3rd highest score in  his class. He wasn’t on the initial list of students teachers nominated for the M3 math competition. However, during the parent meeting I presented in, his mom came up to me afterwards and asked about opportunities for her son. She said, “He loves math”. I informed her of the upcoming math competition and I promised that  I would inform him about it. He eagerly joined the math team and worked hard preparing for the big day. While I was coaching the team, it was clear to me that he was one of the most talented members.

The book labels these kinds of students as late-bloomers. It offers hope for them to get admitted into college. Every college in the book, except for Reed College, accepts more than 50% of their applicants. This in itself changed my preconceived notions about the correlation between college admissions and college quality. I used to think that the more selective a college is, the more worth it is to attend.

Additionally, I wish the information provided included more of the financial aid available to students. Most of my students are low-income and so I would like the book to have addressed how generous their financial aid packages are when evaluating the quality of the school. If the schools don’t have as much money, it would have been good to learn that upfront so that students with a higher need could easily move on.

All in all, this is a book I see myself photocopying excerpts of on a regular basis, once I do more research on the featured colleges’ financial aid. It also inspired me to find colleges that fit this sort of “changes lives” label that stay within California.

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