It may be harder than ever to get into the Ivy League, but fortunately it's easier than ever to find outstanding alternatives. Counselors say if you look hard enough, you're bound to find a school that you love--and, more important, that loves you back. Here are eight strategies kids (and parents) are using to find happiness beyond the ranks of the traditional élite schools.
•Take the Honors Route Big state schools trying to attract top students are increasingly establishing honors colleges. These schools within schools often feel like cloistered liberal-arts colleges but still have access to the superior resources of a large research university. The University of Arizona Honors College offers its students special dorms, advisers and courses. Another upside is that while you're getting a more personalized education, you still have the chance to watch your school win a football game every once in a while.
•Rethink How You Learn Just as not all students learn alike, not all colleges serve the standard fare of a core curriculum and electives. At St. John's College, which has campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., students study nothing but the great books, retracing the grand arc of Western thought and literature from Plato and Plutarch in freshman year to Marx and Melville in senior year. Graduates from Alverno, a Roman Catholic college for women in Milwaukee, Wis., earn academic credits and acquire proficiency in the school's "eight abilities," which range from being a good communicator to solving problems well to having an appreciation of art.
•Go Global Nothing helps students understand globalization more than living it. And fortunately, foreign universities are increasing their quality and their outreach to American students. McGill in Montreal has long been a popular destination to the north, and the University of Hong Kong is growing in popularity, with 252 American applicants last year. After Prince William of Britain matriculated in 2001, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland saw a boost in its international applications, and at the University of Edinburgh, American enrollment has almost tripled since 2002. The most dubious perk of going to college in Britain: free enrollment in the national dental-care system.
•Carve Your Own Niche Some high schoolers are already so sure of their future careers that a meandering liberal-arts education seems a waste of time compared with the chance to specialize early. The Savannah College of Art and Design has gained a national reputation by offering demanding degrees in subjects like fibers and interior design. Students at the Culinary Institute of America can major in such fields as baking and pastry-arts management. The school has two campuses: one in Hyde Park, N.Y., and the other in St. Helena, Calif., the heart of Napa Valley. Alas, there are no wine pairings with the dorm food.