Beyond Rankings – Finding the Right College for You
College ranking lists are like catnip to prospective students: What GPA is required? Which schools are most selective? Who’s No. 1?
The problem with many of these lists is that they measure “input,” rather than output. Forbes magazine has taken a different strategy in its rankings: determining what students get out of college (as in, how successful they are after graduation). According to the publication: “A growing number of colleges and universities are now focusing on student-consumer value over marketing prestige, making this a new age of return-on-investment education.”
Colleges applaud this view. “When students are selecting colleges, they will find some great opportunities if they can look beyond those ubiquitous top-25 lists,” says Lee Ann Backlund, vice president for enrollment planning and dean of admission and financial aid at University of the South (TN).
“Rankings paint one picture and, unfortunately, it’s a one-sided picture for students. Just because some mathematical computation gave it a high ranking doesn’t mean it’s the best school for you,” says Gareth Fowles, vice president for enrollment management at Lynn University (FL).
We took a look at what else students should consider—and how they can find the data.
Numbers, Sizes and Types: Oh My!
Schools run the gamut from small to large, urban to rural, with different mixes of international students and diversity.
“When I’m out talking to students, we suggest they first review the university mission to make sure it’s what they’re looking for, and then consider factors such as size, majors that are offered, student-to-faculty ratio, average class size and other elements that they can compare among institutions,” says Lauren Scott, associate director of admissions at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
One way to determine what sort of college is a good fit is to think about what you like and don’t like about your own high school. Do you appreciate that you have classes small enough that you can engage with your teachers? Or do you wish the school was bigger, with more vibrant opportunities for clubs and athletics? Backlund says those same qualities will translate into what you might like in a college.
Susan Winstel, senior associate director of admissions at Carlow University (PA), suggests looking beyond just the size of the campus to other opportunities the school might offer, such as cross-registration at other nearby universities.
Although you want to make sure that the college has your major of choice (if you happen to know what you want already)—and that it has a robust offering of classes to prepare you for your future career, you might also want to look beyond that one coveted major. “Make sure the school has a variety of programs that interest you, since 50 percent of kids change their mind about their major,” Winstel says.
Location can play a role, not only for climate and proximity to your family, but also for internship and research opportunities. “Outside-classroom exposure is critical because it’s what will make your résumé shine,” reminds Winstel, who
recommends you check into accessibility to internship opportunities that fit your needs. For example, you’ll want to be close to research facilities if you’re going into the medical field.
However, adds Backlund, a college located in a smaller town shouldn’t automatically be excluded if that’s an environment that suits you. Many students use summer break to really concentrate on internships, which means a college’s proximity to a city isn’t a factor.
Finally, make sure that the school offers the extracurricular activities that are important to you, whether that’s athletics, drama, dance or something else.
Beyond the Numbers: Subjective Features to Consider
Then there are the factors that are more nebulous—things like student satisfaction, student debt and postgraduate success, which can be harder to determine without some concerted research.
“I am a big proponent of students visiting campuses if it’s feasible,” Fowles says. He recommends getting an insider’s view by meeting with current students and sitting in on a class, as well as talking to the dean of a program that interests you.
“Talk to as many strangers as you can,” adds Scott. “The admissions staff, the marketing department and the tour guides are all very helpful, but try to talk to someone who doesn’t work for the university.”
Students are so candid when you ask them questions, Backlund points out. “You have to see yourself at a place, and looking at websites and rankings won’t suffice.”
Looking Toward the Future
“Students and parents need to be asking about outcomes,” Backlund says. She recommends a visit to the career center to find out where the school is placing graduates for jobs, internships and graduate school.
As Fowles notes, upon graduation, students will either be going to graduate school or starting a career, so it’s vital to find out what the institution is doing to prepare them for one of these two opportunities.
“Make sure that the school has a strong academic advising program to help students navigate their options, supplemented by a robust career development office to help counsel students on job-hunting techniques and assist in locating internships and other opportunities,” Scott says.
A school’s sticker price is just a starting point, since it doesn’t factor in merit- and need-based aid, and that can be substantial! In 2014-15, undergraduate students received an average of $14,210 per full-time equivalent student in financial aid, according to the College Board.
Winstel says that students tend to look at the amount of scholarship, but not the whole financial package, which can include grant moneys, loans and work-study options. “Look at the bottom line,” she says. “Just because the price tag of a private institution might seem steep, don’t automatically let that scare you away. Typically, they can offer more lucrative financial aid scholarships and have grants that public universities don’t. Many of them are stackable and, at the end of the day, the bottom line might be more in line with a state or even community college.”
In addition, find out about four-year graduation rates, which can make a college a more affordable option than one where students routinely take five years or more, says Bruce Perkins, associate vice president for enrollment management at Oklahoma Baptist University.
“I find that families seldom realize the connection between cost and graduation rates,” he says, noting that many universities renew academic scholarships—often the largest part of the financial aid package—for four years, and after that, it can disappear. “Students need to inquire about the details of their aid packages regarding how often the aid can be renewed and correlate that with graduation rates so they are not surprised down the road.
Some schools, like University of the South, freeze tuition when you enter, which allows families to plan. “If tuition at other schools is going up 3 percent a year, that can really add up,” Backlund says.
Make sure to find the bottom line for a true apples-to-apples comparison, points out Scott. “One school’s expenses might not include books, for example,” she says.
The website should also show the average debt load for graduates. If it doesn’t, call the school and ask.
Ultimately, this is one of the most important components of your college search.
Besides talking to students on campus, find other ways to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse. Social media provides an unfiltered means to find out more about a school, suggests Scott. “See what they’re posting on YouTube or follow conversations on Instagram and Twitter to find out what they’re enjoying on campus.”
Perkins notes that discussions about college choice should include a conversation about values. “Every institution has core values that form the foundation upon which decisions are made, from hiring practices to residential living to student life,” he says. “Prospective students need to understand those values to determine if it will be a good fit for them. No one likes to be a ‘fish out of water,’ but that can happen if the institution’s values differ significantly from the student’s.”
“The bottom line is that the college you choose is going to be your home for the next four or more years,” says Scott, “so you need to find a community where you feel welcome and comfortable.”