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. “Rankings paint one picture, and, unfortunately, it’s a one-sided picture for students,” says Gareth Fowles, vice president for enrollment management at Lynn University (FL). “Just because some mathematical computation gave it a high ranking doesn’t mean it’s the best school for you.”
Many people consider the categories included in the rankings to be important, but Chris Beiswanger, director of the Office of Admissions at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, says he’s a much bigger fan of students focusing on fit. “The hard part is that fit is a feeling, not something tangible that a student immediately can judge or value in a traditional mindset,” he says. In addition, it takes time to process what fits each individual student. “They need to see a variety of college campuses and programs to be able to judge this.”
We took a look at what students should consider beyond rankings—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 they can compare among institutions,” says Lauren Scott, associate director of admissions at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
School location is one of the underestimated considerations, according to Jordan Bryant, director of undergraduate admissions at Trinity International University (IL). “Having access to internships, networks, jobs and activities off campus can often make or break the experience,” he says.
Although it’s important that a school has the programs that interest you, be sure to consider other factors, especially because many students end up changing their majors.
“Don’t just pick the place that has the best program in whatever you want to study,” says Beth Wolfe, director of recruitment at Marshall University (WV). “You never know what you might fall in love with in terms of a class that you take for a general education requirement and how that might impact your major. You want to try to find a place where you can switch majors pretty easily because it’s more common than most families realize.”
Something else to consider is the diversity on campus. “I believe it matters who you study with,” Bryant says. “One of the things I love about Trinity is that we have students from 46 countries and 48 states. Having such a rich community of like-minded people with different backgrounds is something you may never get the privilege to experience again.”
Finally, make sure 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 such as student satisfaction, student debt and postgraduate success, which can be harder to determine without some concerted research.
One of the best ways to get information is by visiting schools. Do the official thing: Schedule an appointment, and take a tour, but then linger, suggests Lisa Burns, associate dean of admission at the University of the South (TN). “Eavesdrop in the bookstore and dining hall, and wander through a classroom. Come back over the weekend, and attend a lecture or concert,” she suggests.
“There’s no substitute for seeing facilities firsthand, meeting faculty who will teach your classes, talking with current students about why they chose a specific college and what they like about it, and, of course, exploring what you’ll eat, where you’ll sleep and what kind of student experience you’ll have,” says Carolyn R. Strickland, vice president for enrollment management and associate provost at Pennsylvania College of Technology. “Many students report to us that they ‘just know’ that the college is right for them after visiting.”
Visiting the school allows you to ask deeper questions, Beiswanger says, such as “Is this the best program for me?” and “Do I see opportunities for me to grow and succeed?”
“A ranking, although helpful, can’t break down how you feel,” he says. “If you like and feel comfortable on the campus overall, then you will more than likely be successful.”
While you’re on campus, talk to as many strangers as you can, Scott adds. “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,” she says.
The goal is to discover information you can’t find out on the website or in the catalog. “The campus visit introduces you to the culture,” Wolfe says. “Are students friendly? Are they involved in the local community? And how does that fit with your personality? You might be independent and not want a rah-rah campus.”
Looking Toward the Future
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 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.
Alumni success is something every student should be asking about and every school should tout. This is especially true for liberal arts majors, who frequently wonder what they will do with, say, their English degree. “See if you can speak to noteworthy alumni and find out what they studied and how they got started,” Burns says.
Although statistics and reputation matter, they don’t tell the whole story. “Success is up to each student,” Bryant says. “The school’s graduation rates may be low, but it doesn’t mean you won’t graduate. The reputation of the school might be great, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get a job. College is more about building a foundation of skills and experiences that prepare you for your first job, as well as your last, and using that to find your path to success.”
A school’s sticker price is just a starting point because it doesn’t factor in merit- and need-based aid, which can be substantial. For the 2015–16 academic year, full-time undergraduate students received an average of $14,460 in financial aid, according to the College Board.
“Looking at finances first is putting the cart before the horse,” Burns cautions. Wait to see what your merit aid is or other scholarships that are offered to give you a clear picture of what it will cost. Consider the college’s graduation rate, which can have a significant impact on the final dollar amount, too.
Be smart about how you evaluate the cost and the aid offered. “It’s important for families not to be blinded by scholarship amounts,” Wolfe says. “If tuition is relatively low, the dollar amount of the scholarship may be lower, too. Look at the total cost, not just the amount of the scholarship. Emotions can often trump logic when considering the numbers.”
Make sure to find the bottom line for a true apples-to-apples comparison. “One school’s expenses might not include books, for example,” Scott says.
At the core, says Strickland, is wanting to get insights into value. “Students—and their parents—want to know what the value of their experience will be because they want to know what the value of the degree will be,” she says, urging families to ask the tough questions. “Staff and faculty members should be able to articulate their points of distinction to a prospective student.”
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. “See what they’re posting on YouTube, or follow conversations on Instagram and Twitter to find out what they’re enjoying on campus,” Scott says.
The bottom line is that college is all about stretching, reaching and rediscovering who you are. “Be open to schools that aren’t featured on GameDay or at the top of the rankings,” Burns says. “These hidden gems could be a perfect fit.”