Colleges of Distinction Celebrates 20 Years of Honoring Student-Centered Education

Tyson Schritter / Colleges of Distinction »

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. This unique and trusted resource boasts its longstanding support for the student-centered schools that traditional rankings often overlook.

Founder Wes Creel and his colleagues found that the most popular rankings systems rely heavily on vanity 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 and retention programs.

Westfield State University advertisement

“Each school is different, just as every student is different,” said Creel. “So we never rank those in our cohort. Instead, we explain how each one commits itself to achieving our four elements of success. We encourage students and parents to understand which opportunities and campuses are best for them.”

Colleges of Distinction’s annual selection process consists of in-depth research and detailed interviews with the schools themselves, accepting only those with outstanding experiential learning opportunities that adhere to the Four Distinctions

  • Engaged Students: The institution provides opportunities that encourage students to talk, write, think, debate, and explore beyond the classroom through domestic or international study abroad. Students “try on” careers by designing research projects, taking on co-ops or internships, or participating in community service projects.
  • Great Teaching: The institution supports an atmosphere of exciting thought and action led by professors who care about helping students learn to think for themselves. At the institution, academic innovation goes hand-in-hand with personalized learning.
  • Vibrant Community: The institution encourages students to live on or near campus to take advantage of social opportunities. Students can engage with their community through seminars, clubs, film screenings, art shows, fundraisers, and more. 
  • Successful Outcomes: The institution is committed to preparing students for life. Students graduate with superior writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills as well as the ability to work collaboratively and with a diverse group of people. Graduates are not only prepared for their first job, but for an ever-changing job market.

The Four Distinctions model prioritizes the student-centered High-Impact Practices that make for a fulfilling, individualized college experience.

Over the years, Colleges of Distinction has kept an eye on the college search process as well as the landscape of higher education as a whole. And, having examined what today’s students and parents are looking for both inside and outside of the classroom, the team adapted additional qualifications for schools that excel in these crucial areas: 

  • Career Development: The institution prepares students to be adaptable in an ever-changing landscape. Its career office is connecting with students as early as orientation and guiding them through their academic careers. As a result, students are equipped with the self-reflection, job market research, and networking skills needed for their lifelong career journey.
  • Equity & Inclusion: The institution provides an educational community that allows students to embrace all intersections of their identity and develop as fully realized versions of themselves. It gives noteworthy support to underserved and underrepresented students who might not otherwise thrive on a college campus—from recruitment, throughout school, and beyond the completion of their degree.
  • Military Support: The institution is aware of the unique challenges military students face on campus and provides the support they need to tackle them inside and outside of the classroom. It is also proud to cultivate the skills and perspective that military students bring to the classroom, all while helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.

Colleges of Distinction has evolved into a comprehensive guide for students; not only does it supply a list of thoroughly vetted institutions, but it is also 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 the Four Distinctions, the organization helps shift students’ focus from the otherwise superficial numbers that many have been conditioned to prioritize. 

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 in which Americans perceive the purpose of higher education. And most recently, when the COVID-19 pandemic threatened school openings and the admissions process, Colleges of Distinction quickly adapted to highlight how these institutions were themselves jumping in to help current and prospective students alike. Throughout all these historical shifts, Colleges of Distinction has continued to lift up the schools that provide a comprehensive liberal arts education in the face of a rapidly changing marketplace.

“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,” said Creel.