College Selection Criteria: Reading Between the Lines

It’s spring and many parents and their kids are considering prospective universities and colleges for the fall.  When you take an on-campus tour, there are several questions you should ask to get the straight story on programs and services that the school provides. Below is a guide for you to follow.  If you are like many Americans and you can only afford to send your child instate, take heart.  Advice for you follows next week.

1) Ask about retention rates. How many freshmen at the college go on to their sophomore year?  Nationally, the dropout rate for two year and four year colleges hovers around 40%.  Knowing how well your prospective college works with freshmen students is an important consideration.

2) Ask about graduation rates. What percentage of freshmen four years ago went on to graduate from this school?  Of those who graduated, what percent landed jobs in the fields for which they prepared?   How did the campus career center facilitate the job search process?

3) Does the college offer a student success course? About one-third of schools offer courses to help students make the transition from high school to college. Find out if the prospective school offers such a course in the summer or during the year and find out who teaches it—professors, academic advisors, counselors? You want to see a variety of presenters involved in the course.

4) What services are set up specifically for freshmen? What are the specific on campus services that are offered for freshmen in the areas of mental health, finances, career and internship help, tutoring, clubs and organizations, etc.?  How can freshmen easily connect with other freshmen?

5) How many full professors teach freshmen and sophomores? Many students at some of the nation’s best universities are taught by graduate assistants the first two years of college.  This is especially true at research institutions, and students need to be aware of this tradeoff.

6) What is the average class size for freshmen survey classes? If your child has a  learning disability or is motivated by consistent interaction with their teachers, very large schools and classes may be a hindrance.  Sit in on a class or two with your child, and take a read on their level of comfort.

7) What do real students say? One mother and her daughter I know visited fifteen schools.  Their best advice was to sit at the coffee house or the cafeteria, after the initial recruiting was over, and pose questions to students themselves.  What do they like and dislike about the school?  What do they wish they had known earlier in the college selection process?  Interview as many seniors as possible. This is an excellent opportunity for your child to hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

8) What does the campus feel like?
Encourage your child to get beyond the  “externals,” like the brand name of the school, or your first choice as a parent. Ask them to really listen to their instincts on which environments would be best for them to flourish. Interview professors.  Are they aloof? Or are they available to freshmen?  What is the unspoken culture of the institution? Freshmen are almost certain to face struggles adjusting to college life, but having great fit with the environment will ease the transition.

9) What financial aid is being offered? Review the financial aid packages that each campus offers.  Your child’s second or third school choice may come through with the most money.  This is a valuable opportunity for your child to weigh pros and cons of each decision and to commit fully to what is best for her. That commitment will encourage her to persevere when things get tough.

10) See the process as a partnership. Even if you can afford to pay for your child’s tuition, room and board, it is an important part of the maturing process for your child to take ownership, including financial ownership. Graduates who offer the most to employers are the ones whose parents haven’t paved the road for them; they have learned on their own how to earn what they want in life. Don’t deny your child the opportunity to stand on his own two feet in the adult world. When students take ownership of their education, they will be more likely to excel in college.

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