Colleges of Distinction Celebrates 20 Years of Student-Centered Education




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College guide’s unique methodology continues to promote engagement over prestige.

AUSTIN, Texas: — The year 2020 marks a significant milestone for Colleges of Distinction, which is celebrating its 20-year anniversary as a one-of-a-kind guide for college-bound students. The unique resource boasts its longstanding support for the student-centered schools that traditional rankings often overlook.

Founder Wes Creel traces Colleges of Distinction’s beginnings back to when he was helping his eldest of four daughters search for schools. “I knew there were countless possibilities for where my daughter could go,” said Creel, “but learning about anything more than the prestigious, brand-name schools was near impossible.” The schools that dominated the rankings were drowning out all the others, but he eventually discovered some hidden gems that his daughter loved. It was in helping her through the difficult and pivotal decision of choosing a college that he was inspired to collaborate with some friends in academia and create Colleges of Distinction.

Colleges of Distinction’s selection process consists of in-depth research and detailed interviews with the schools themselves, accepting only those that adhere to the Four Distinctions: Engaged Students, Great Teaching, Vibrant Community, and Successful Outcomes. This model prioritizes the student-centered High-Impact Practices that make for a fulfilling, individualized college experience.

“Each school is different, just as every student is different,” said Creel. “There is no number-one college for everyone, so we never rank those in our cohort. Instead, we explain how each one commits itself to achieving these four elements of success. We encourage students and parents to understand which opportunities and campuses are best for them.”

Creel and his colleagues found that the most pervasive rankings systems rely heavily on statistics to rank schools, including such metrics as peer reputation, size of endowment, and alumni salaries. They knew instead that most critical to the student experience were engaging experiences like internships, living-learning communities, and first-year seminars.

Colleges of Distinction has evolved into a comprehensive guide for students, filled with advice for what to look for in a college, how to apply, and how to prepare for the next four years and beyond. Using its Four Distinctions, the organization helps shift students’ focus from the otherwise superficial numbers that many have been conditioned to prioritize. Its school profiles and general articles expand upon the benefit of small class sizes, opportunities for research, one-on-one advising and collaboration with faculty, and all the experiences that affect the students themselves, not the institution’s ranking. Creel argues that too many high-quality schools are hidden in plain sight. “WeColleges of Distinction Icon Logo want students to know what to look for. We want them to ask themselves, ‘Where will I get to pursue my interests? Where will I be at my happiest? Where will I be most likely to learn, grow, and succeed?’”

In the last 20 years, the rise of for-profit education and MOOCs, the devastating impacts of the Great Recession, and the exponential advancements in technology have all influenced the way Americans perceive the purpose of higher education. And throughout all of these historical shifts, Colleges of Distinction has continued to lift up the schools doing the heavy lifting to provide a comprehensive liberal arts education in the face of a rapidly changing marketplace. “Employers need independent thinkers who can adapt to new skills and work across disciplines,” said Creel. “We’re proud to have seen our Colleges of Distinction commit to the learning styles and community involvement that will best allow their students to thrive.”

About Colleges of Distinction

Since 2000, Colleges of Distinction has honored schools throughout the U.S. for their excellence in undergraduate-focused higher education. The cohort of schools in the Colleges of Distinction consortium distinguish themselves through their focus on the undergraduate experience. The website includes dynamic college profiles, customized tools, and resources for students, parents, and high school counselors. For more information, and to learn how to become a College of Distinction, visit