Finding intellectual peers at lower-ranked schools

We are starting the college search with my daughter, who is finishing her sophomore year. I know it’s early, but I also know that people thought they had more time and lost an entire semester, or longer, of making college visits! So, we hope to start making visits this fall.

Can an intellectually curious, driven student find her peers (people who challenge and engage her) at a lower-ranked school? Will an honors program at a lower-ranked school provide the peers and close-knit environment my student is looking for? Perhaps the bigger question is: How low is aiming too low?

Here’s her current background: she’s a bright, motivated student who currently has 4.0 UW in the toughest classes available to her (all honors at this point, starting AP and DE in the fall). She’s never hinted at a B. She has strong ECs and leadership (but hasn’t cured cancer or written a best seller) and a decent PSAT score of 1300 in 10th grade. This was actually lower than I expected, but with no studying maybe it’s about right. She will be taking some prep classes this summer and taking SAT/ACT in the fall.

We are in NC but it’s unlikely that she’s going to be interested in the flagship UNC, even though it’s an amazing school. We walked around a couple of years ago when we were near there, and she just didn’t like it at all. She goes to a small private Christian school now and sees herself continuing her education in a smaller environment. She does not want the school to revolve around sports or a Greek system. Her social happiness is more reliant on close friendships with a handful of people … she’s more interested in a coffee shop and in-depth discussions than the “fun” I had in college ;). She’s a thinker but not just a book worm - she’s a multi-sport athlete and very physically active, but likely will not play for her school. She would prefer a Christian school, but it seems there are few “true, practicing” Christian schools left.

She thinks she wants pre-med, but I would say that is very subject to change. We will more than likely be full pay, and even though we’ve saved since the day she was born we will struggle to pay the 70k per year that the small private schools she would likely be drawn to will cost. She has a sibling who is three years behind her. So, I think our search will come down to lower ranked schools (meaning at least below top 50s) where she can go for some merit money. Obviously, if she does decide on pre-med, she will have to sacrifice and go with the schools that make the most economic sense, even if that means the flagship.

BUT, I think it’s important for her to find her social and intellectual peers. College was the time of my life because I finally found “my people.” I want that for her. She says “I love education, but school has failed me.” She doesn’t ever feel challenged, and she doesn’t ever feel like her curiosity is satisfied by discussion in the classroom. She’s frustrated by slackers, especially if the slacker in the room is the teacher.

Examples of some schools that are on our radar: Stetson (FL), Lipscomb (TN), Samford (AL), Trinity (TX). Or would an honors college in a larger school like UA Huntsville, Texas Christian, James Madison University be better matches? Some of the honors colleges have rather low requirements. We will also look at places like Washington & Lee, William and Mary, Southern Methodist, Baylor, Rollins, and maybe Pepperdine if we feel like her actual test scores would put her in contention for a named/larger scholarship. I see her landing in the southeast/mid-Atlantic or potentially Texas if her wings want to fly further in a couple of years. Pepperdine, IMO, would be a great match if it were closer to mom ;). And to complicate things, there’s a decent chance that we would move to Florida by the time she’s finished with college, and in that case we would also have significantly less income.

Thanks in advance for any insight.

The short answer is that yes, your daughter will find her intellectual peers even at schools ranked between 200-300. The smartest students we knew in HS ended up following merit money at regional schools or some of the big southern flagships. They love their honors colleges and their schools.

If your daughter is looking for smaller campuses where she may see merit money, consider St. Olaf in MN, if that isn’t too far away.

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I am commenting largely because your post sounds so familiar, even though I do not see a clear answer. We were in a very similar situation, including the problem of finding it very painful to pay $70,000 or more for college while not qualifying for need based aid. I suspect that this is a common problem. Your statement “even though we’ve saved since the day she was born we will struggle to pay the 70k per year” sounds very familiar, as does “small private schools she would likely be drawn to”. Your daughter’s grades and test scores are also very similar to what we were dealing with.

One thing to figure out is how strongly your daughter feels about attending a small school rather than a large school. We have one daughter who wanted a small school. This made things a bit tougher because the small schools in our area which were an academic fit do not have any merit based aid. I did run the NPC on a number of the nearby highly ranked LACs and the results were not fun.

I agree about UNC being a great school. However with 29,000 students (18,700 undergrads) it is not a small school. We toured several schools of a similar size (I remember four) and D2 was quite clear they were too large for her.

Our daughter who went to a small school has found a small school to be a great fit. As an example she had AP credit in Spanish, and therefore started off in a second year Spanish class. Her first day of classes, her first ten minutes in the Spanish class she found herself in a friendly discussion with the professor (the discussion was entirely in Spanish). Two hours later she was dropped from the class and was enrolled in a third year Spanish class (which she got an A in). This was possible because the school was so small that she got to meet her professors very quickly in small classes. As a first semester freshman in university she had two classes with 15 students in them or less taught by full professors. She knows many of her professors well, and this has led to very good internships and research opportunities. There are significant advantages of small schools.

In contrast, her sister at a large university ended up switching to a major that the great majority of small universities would not have even offered. That is one advantage of a large university.

Because we live way to the North and East of you, we are not all that far from the US/Canadian border. There are not very many small universities in Canada (Canada does not use the term “liberal arts college”), but there are a few and some are both very good and very affordable even for an international student. This created an affordable option for us. Your daughter would end up having to fly back and forth if you did the same thing. We did tour most of the best small universities in Canada that are east of Ontario. All would be safeties with your daughter’s stats.

My understanding is that there are some good small LACs in the south that offer merit based aid. We did not look that far away from here.

In terms of meeting her peers, D2 clearly found this far easier at a small university than in high school. At college or university the bottom half of the population is mostly missing, which means that someone who is very smart is simply surrounded by more people who are “like them”. I agree completely with @momofsenior1 that “yes, your daughter will find her intellectual peers”.

She would have no trouble finding her intellectual peers at a school like Washington & Lee. It sounds like a great fit for what you’ve described. The Johnson Scholarship is an exceptional opportunity there.

I’m thinking also of schools like Rhodes and Sewanee/University of the South.

Honors programs can be a way to find peers in a lower ranked school, but I’d look closely at the honors program to see how she would be involved with the other honors students if at all, to see if they take any classes together, to see if there are honors seminars, etc. These programs can vary greatly.

You are not getting started too early at all. This is exactly the right time to be exploring. You should be visiting next year.

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I believe you D will find academically inclined and focused students at most schools. I would not focus on rank, but fit.

One of the schools you mentioned was Trinity U in Texas…their class of 2023 mid-50% ACT was 30-33, so high academic students are the norm there.

Agree you should check out the various honors colleges.

Would any of the NC non-flagship schools be a fit? Many consider those in NC to be so lucky wrt state school options.

I would add also look at U Richmond, Emory, Furman, Davidson, and Occidental.

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Your story sounds familiar. We had same concerns with S20. You can find intellectual peers at most schools, especially with honor programs. That said, it gets to be more difficult the lower you go in the rankings. It’s just math. Son isn’t an intellectual snob but does better in the classes where he’s challenged by peers plus the class moves faster which is part of the battle.

I would wait until you get SAT/ACT scores then start to narrow the list but apply to a few schools where you’re aiming higher.

Some schools that popped into my head were Furman, SMU, Baylor, Macalester, Trinity (Tx), and Wheaton if she really wants a Christian school. There’s also the Catholic schools like ND, Holy Cross, Santa Clara, or Fordham. SMU was very generous to my son but too far for our tastes with Covid. We liked Fordham. The location isn’t for everyone but it’s a pretty campus and seemed like a good bunch of kids. I’m surprised Davidson or Wake wasn’t mentioned.

I would ask your D to think about the trade-off between a Christian school, vs. a school with a large and active student organization focused on your denomination and lots of community service/volunteer organizations which fit her spiritual leanings.

You will have MANY more choices with the latter vs. the former!

The “intellectual fit” and small class issue involves a lot of variables. There are some majors/departments where by sophomore year virtually all the classes in both the majors and related disciplines will be small, and where virtually all the fellow students will be intellectual peers. I was a Classics major, and by sophomore year, if I had a class with more than 20 students it was by choice (there was a Renaissance Lit class taught by a famous scholar/master teacher… believe me, it was life-altering even though it was a large lecture).

So freshman psych or bio at a huge university is likely to be big. A seminar on Ovid or Tacitus-- even at the same university? Likely to be tiny. So choices matter.

Will a student majoring in Econ or bio be able to slide under the radar at a huge school? Yes- if that student wants to.

Last year I was at a relative’s commencement from a huge Big Ten University which does not exactly have the reputation for “warm and fuzzy” or small classes. The university commencement was in the football stadium with tens of thousands of people. The actual departmental graduation (where you get your diploma, where awards are announced) was in a small performing arts venue and every single student got multiple hugs, fist bumps, atta-boys, etc. from the deans and faculty sitting on the stage. I assumed this was a “fake-out” for the parents- but no- at the reception afterwards, when I was introduced to relatives professors, it was clear that every professor in the department knew every single student majoring in that field. Professors were saying things like “if you change your mind about grad school I hope you’ll call me for a reference” or “If you have time this summer I’d love to work with you getting that paper ready for publication”.


And this is a massive public U with tens of thousands of students.

My takeaway? People become professors because they want to leave a mark on students, and they figure out how to do that regardless of the size of the institution.

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Based on being full pay but not being able to afford list price, it looks like she needs to aim low on the selectivity range for merit scholarships.

Within that context, it may be easier to find an academic peer group at a big college than a small college. A student who is in the top 5% of academic strength (however defined) at a 20,000 student college will have 1,000 potential academic peers, but will have only 100 potential academic peers at a 2,000 student college.

The student’s major may also matter. If the student is in a major with more competitive admission, or is known to be “hard”, or is large and attracts students from the full range of academic strength, that can make it easier to find academic peers. But if the major is known at that college as an “easy” major for those really majoring in partying and beer, or is where the college advises recruited athletes with academic credentials far below the usual standards to go, that would not be a good place for a student at the top end of academic strength.

In terms of Christian schools, consider denominational preference. For non-religious schools, check for churches and religious activities nearby off campus.

Thanks for the replies so far. We actually live just a few miles from Davidson. I would say that Davidson is her measuring stick – in terms of the size, campus and town, that’s what she would want. But they give virtually no money, so we don’t see that as a contender. They do not allow commuters, so that’s not a savings option. Same for Wake - I don’t think she would fall in that top few who would be the lucky beneficiary of merit money. We did also look at Wofford and Furman (we’ve walked around some campuses as we’ve traveled for club soccer) and she didn’t like the location of either campus. Wofford, not a great area outside of campus, Furman fairly isolated. She likes the walkability of a town like Davidson. On paper Elon seems like a good possibility too, but we went there for an event and she didn’t care for it. She couldn’t put a finger on why so we may have to go there for an official visit to see if she looks at it differently.

App State or Wilmington may be state-school options.

I don’t think she will want to go as far north as Chicago. She likes the mountains of Virginia and the Carolinas, but I suspect that’s the furthest north she’ll go - the girl’s got southern blood :wink: and I cannot see her walking to class in 15 degree weather! We may have to go check a couple places out in February to find out!

What about Richmond? Check out the Richmond Scholars Program. Exceptional opportunity.

why do you think she will go to a “lower ranked school”? She has great stats and her SAT will definitely improve.

Sounds a lot like me. When I started looking in freshman year…I wanted small, catholic, non party and campus. Then as time evolved and I began looking at some non-catholic colleges and I found catholic did not matter as much. Which led me to Tufts. great smaller campus, but not too small. Not a big party school. Collaborative and artsy.

I think she needs to look at a vast array of schools of different types and sizes. My mother “dragged” me to different types in order so I can make an informed decision.

When we visited Boston, we looked at every school. That’s the only way to truly know.

She was right…I really felt I was thorough in my choices, and had great comparisons.

Many of the schools mentioned by others came to mind for me too (Davidson, Furman, Holy Cross, Richmond, William and Mary); I see you’ve checked the first two out. Or look at the Jesuit schools, most are medium sized. Maybe Loyola MD? William and Mary would be your hardest to get a scholarship as OOS.

I do think that most kids find their people at college, no matter what type they are looking for. Sure, she’ll probably have some group projects in her earlier years with “slackers” and it will get on her nerves. But I think it’s much easier to find your people with the wider range of student body at college vs high school, and so many student activities to explore.

I also think that you should definitely keep in mind the schools that you’ve done a drive through and she’s felt lukewarm or cool about. College preferences usually become more clear as kids progress higher in high school, and also sometimes the tour info itself (guide, presentation etc) can really make a difference, learning more about the school than just seeing the physical location and campus.

It looks like she will be chasing merit scholarships, which usually means a list of colleges that are mostly less selective than the ones that could be selected if admission were the only concern.

I wanted to say to keep an open mind, and don’t get too invested in only touring schools that meet today’s criteria. You’re still early in the game, and they change their minds when they start visiting (especially when school is in session, and without you present, etc…). You’ve got time for your student to grow and develop more, and feel out preferences for environment, location, culture, etc…

You don’t have to worry about your student finding their academic peers. Nearly every school will have smart and motivated students who are going to shine at the collegiate level. The Forbes/WSJ/USNWR et al lists that rank schools isn’t going to be the barometer for whether or not your student will find her tribe. Being in the “Top Whatever” doesn’t mean that only, or mostly, the brightest and the best attend. The ‘brightest & best’ attend a myriad of schools, and are smart enough to connect with others of their kind. :slight_smile:

My quest to help my student find his best fit started out much like yours. It ended up at our State flagship (where he’ll start this fall), in a selective honors program, with some of the brightest minds as his peers and future instructors. On day 1 of College Confidential (where you are now) he wouldn’t have even considered it. Now, he’s overjoyed, and can’t believe that he might have missed this opportunity. So don’t get overly invested in the criteria just now. Take some time to visit all sorts of the schools (even the ones that you think your student wouldn’t like, or don’t check all or most of the boxes), and just get a feel. Even if a school goes in the “nope” column, you all will understand more about the reasons why, and you’ll probably get some eye-openers and shockers along the way.

I would take a good look at the Midwest LAC’s. Especially if the 30-40k price point would work for you.

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Thanks for the replies so far. We actually live just a few miles from Davidson. I would say that Davidson is her measuring stick – in terms of the size, campus and town, that’s what she would want. But they give virtually no money, so we don’t see that as a contender.

@PickleParent , maybe. But my friend’s daughter got an incredible full ride at Davidson. I believe it is the Belk Scholarship. While you can’t count on it, it’s possible. Probably has a similar background as your daughter in terms of grades.

May want to consider some of the excellent honors colleges in larger universities. These are small colleges within larger schools. Some that come to mind are Calhoun at Clemson of Barrett at ASU. Barrett gives out lots of merit aid. Even though they aren’t Christian colleges, if that is important to her, perhaps she can join a campus organization geared towards this?

I was thinking the same thing. Is having a Christian affiliation important? Or would an atmosphere that is supportive of her religious background/choices important? My D’s college had no affiliation with any religion and the campus is very diverse. However, a lot of her classmates are very involved with clubs and activities associated with their religion and church. My daughter had enjoyed really getting to know people with different views and appreciates that her classmates respect her views and choices.

I would highly recommend that she look at Wheaton (IL). D19 just finished her freshman year there. She was 3rd in her HS class of ~400 and definitely feels challenged in the classroom, as well as in discussions with friends in the dorms after class or chapel. There’s no Greek system. Student go to games, but D didn’t always know when they were happening. She loves that she is learning with people from all around the world and from various denominational backgrounds. D does have merit aid, which definitely helps. Let me know if you would like more specifics via direct message.

D’s other top choice was Furman. It really came down to feel for her.

I would check out Rhodes College, Oberlin, and Denison. All three offer merit $. And Santa Clara if she is willing to go West.

Is she open to women’s colleges like Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Agnes Scott, and Bryn Mawr?

Other small liberal arts colleges that offer merit aid: Lewis & Clark in Portland OR, Skidmore in Saratoga Springs NY, Hobart & William Smith (NY), Connecticut College, Union, maybe St. Lawrence. Others know more than me, but I believe the most they offer is around $25,000/year, which is great, but still means paying around $50,000/year.