It’s the season when many soon-to-be high school graduates seek a place to study. Believe some of what you read, a great deal of what you see, and make sure the selection feels right. Be careful.
“There is no such thing as the best college. The real question is whether a particular college is right for a particular individual.”
In selecting a college, analysis and soul searching are increasingly vital as costs skyrocket and opportunities sink. Know what you want to study. Even if it changes as it does 50% of the time, if found once it can be found again. The danger is in never knowing what or why.
The hullabaloo surrounding college choice is confounding. Institutions put their best foot forward in the marketing mode — even the most competitive and selective.
To have some distance and objectivity, review ranking systems. Carefully. There are many. US News and World Report is the most widely read.
The boundaries of USNWR must be recognized. Numbers give some insight: Six-year graduation rates, freshmen retention, faculty resources, average class size, student/faculty ratios, and the proportion of full- and part-time faculty impact quality and reveal institutional priorities. For example, the culture of study is represented in the library: The numbers of holdings, serials, journals, and other subscriptions in print and online provide an institution’s view of access to insight. Even if you only read 50 books a year — an ambitious student goal — a university with a library of 5 million volumes provides more access to insight than a university holding .5 million volumes. These measurements are keyholes to peer through, not full perspectives. Likewise, selectivity, financial resources, and alumni giving rates are fleeting glances of intention, quality and perceived value. Look carefully.
USNWR is only one source of information. Forbes, Kiplinger’s, Princeton Review and dozens, maybe hundreds, of others use multiple measures and methods of comparison.
However, the numbers don’t tell the whole tale and change little over time. In 1930, when Kunkle and Prentice published their first university rankings with methods that would be eschewed today, the top 10 then look similar to the top 10 now. Nonetheless, look at third party insights. Skeptically and carefully.
Talk to family, friends, guidance counselors, teachers and trusted advisors.
After this preliminary work is complete, the most important part of the journey begins. To the extent possible visit every campus of interest. Direct experience is invaluable. Open houses allow first-hand assessment, as do independent visits. Look carefully.
Remember, everybody is selling.
While visiting, ask some questions. I recommend a few:
“May I speak with a member of the faculty granted tenure by this institution who is a subject matter expert in my area of interest?” If the answer is, “We are sorry but no faculty members are available,” leave immediately. Any university that does not provide access to faculty for potential students neglects the force of the institution, and may neglect your interests too.
“May I speak with a current student in the program I am interested in?” No students available? Say, “Thank you very much for your time.” Leave. The students and faculty are the principal campus people.
“May I see the last five buildings built on the campus?” Trying to ascertain whether these add to, subtract from, or have no impact on the academic experience will provide insight. And don’t be fooled. Student engagement opportunities exist in libraries and classrooms, as well as football stadiums, student centers and dorms. The social experience has educational value and is part of the equation. See how the university’s priorities line up with your priorities.
“Would you comment on alumni giving and philanthropy?” Alumni participation rates and endowments are indicators of satisfaction. Good universities attract support and participation. But, be careful. Teachers colleges, for example, may attract smaller and fewer gifts than major research universities. Many teachers may not have the giving power of successful entrepreneurs.
Deciding where to study is a personal and family decision and there is no universal fail-safe analysis. Be careful. Remember, measurable characteristics and direct experiences complement each other, like inhaling and exhaling. See how the fit is. Make a thoughtful, reasoned choice.
And, count the costs.
Did I say be careful?