College of the Atlantic in <a href="/about/bar-harbor-maine/">Bar Harbor, Maine</a>.College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Darron Collins, president of the private College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, advises families on the best way to decide on a college. — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

The beauty of our higher education system is its diversity. Our more than 4,000 colleges and universities offer an often bewildering choice of courses, formats and cultures. In these coming weeks, college-bound high school seniors and their parents will try to balance the merits of such issues as big versus small, rural versus urban, research-focused versus teaching-focused, higher cost versus lower cost, prestigious versus less well-known and public versus private.

Here’s an especially important factor they may want to add to the mix: how much “experiential learning” truly takes place in class and on campus. When I was making the college decision 30 years ago, I thought that size was my most important criterion. I didn’t want to “be just a number,” which I thought I would be at a big school. But I realize now that the issue wasn’t only about numbers — I wanted close and frequent access to the faculty, and to work with them to learn. I didn’t want to be lectured at; I wanted to have conversations and collaborate with my professors and peers — to learn by doing, not just by listening.

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