I have discussed this topic before and I will do so again. It is a big topic!
So, if you are new to the college search process,begin by having a look back at my January newsletter. In it, I talked about some of the basics to help you get started.
Once you’ve narrowed down the main characteristics you’re thinking about – size, location, academic rigor, how far from home, social scene, financial situation, etc. – consider these other, more data-driven factors.
- Student/faculty ratio: The school may tell you, for example, that it’s “15 to 1.” But some schools include administrators in their faculty count. Also, schools with research (graduate students) may have a very low faculty-to-student ratio for research purposes but a high ratio for undergrad classes. On average, it may come out seeming low.So, ask about class sizes – especially for undergraduate introductory classes. Think about whether it’s okay for your child to be in a big lecture hall or if they need small, discussion-oriented classes to thrive. Find out as well how many teaching assistants vs. professors teach the undergraduate classes. It can be fine to have TA’s actually assist, but you want to know if they are used to teach.
- Class availability: Are students typically able to get into the classes they need for their majors, or is it common for students to need more than four years to graduate due to classes being filled? There are stats on how many years students take to graduate.Make sure when looking at graduation stats that you are comparing apples to apples, as these can be listed as a 4, 5 or 6 year graduation rate. Needless to say, additional years for students to graduate will have an impact on your final price.
- Returning students: Look at the stats regarding the percent of freshman who return for sophomore year (called retention rate). If that number is low, you’ll want to know why.
- Merit aid. Does the school give merit aid (money you don’t have to pay back and that is awarded based on grades, test scores or talent) for students in the top 20-25% of its applicant pool? You may think that your child will not fall into this category, but it is possible if the school gives merit aid (they don’t all) and if your child‘s stats look good compared to the other applicants, regardless of whether their GPA is a 4.0 or a 2.9.
- Academic Support: You really have to dig deep on this one to see all the layers that can help your child transition to college. But know that there is a huge range of available support.One learning specialist assigned to cover hundreds of students, for example, is not the same as your child seeing the same specialist for a scheduled appointment each week throughout the year. Schools with a freshman transition type of class, study skill instruction, peer mentors, centers for math, writing, etc., can make a big difference.Many of the above factors can be looked up at this website by the U.S. Department of Education: http://www.collegeresults.org/. Here you can explore data on individual colleges and then use the comparison chart to look at a number of schools side by side.
Remember, with several thousand colleges to choose from in this country alone, it’s in your best interest to filter your list as you go. Consider these important factors and make sure to take advantage of the wealth of data and information available in helping you make an informed decision!