There are metrics that matter when choosing a college--here's how to ignore the flashy advertising and drill down to what's important

A smarter way to think about college

There are metrics that matter when choosing a college--here's how to ignore the flashy advertising and drill down to what's important

This month, hundreds of thousands of graduating high school seniors are weighing their college options. For many, it’s an intensely stressful time as they are rejected or waitlisted by schools they aspired to attend and decide where they will spend the next four years of their lives. Unfortunately, most will base those decisions on criteria that don’t actually determine the quality of their education and ignore the criteria that do.

Choosing a college to attend is not like choosing a product to purchase, though students often approach the decision with a consumer’s mindset. There is no Consumer Reports to rely on, leaving students and their parents unduly influenced by a school’s reputation, the glitziness of the admissions materials, the amenities in the student housing, the impressiveness of the recreational facilities, and the quality of the campus tour. None of these bears any relation to the quality of the instruction you will receive as a student.

Even sampling a class or two while visiting a school tells you virtually nothing meaningful.  As any teacher knows, there are good days and bad days in every course.  What you experience is not generalizable to the course as a whole, much less to the entire school.

The much-followed US News and World Report ratings are misleading at best.  They base their rankings on data that may not be reported consistently and on the subjective impressions of college presidents and senior administrators.  More fundamentally, the rankings falsely suggest that a single assessment scale is equally applicable to all, whereas students have a range of priorities and values.  The selection tool recently introduced by the New York Times, which allows students to search schools by criteria they choose and rank, is far more useful.

But there are metrics that matter, and it’s worth knowing what they are. 

Assuming that you’re going to college to learn, you want to know about the faculty who will be teaching you.  How much of their time do they devote to teaching and how available will they be to you?  Is there a Center for Learning and Teaching to nurture young faculty and keep senior faculty from growing stale, and do faculty avail themselves of its programs?  How do faculty rank the support they receive from their institution, as measured by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey?  You want to attend a college where faculty feel supported and respected by the administration, and where they are invested in teaching undergraduates.

There are several ways to investigate the student culture and the quality of student learning.  Ask to see the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) for the schools you’re considering, which will provide data on everything from social climate to the prevalence of binge drinking to the level of participation in extracurricular activities.  Every school also conducts surveys of its graduates; you’ll want to know how satisfied alumni are with the education they received.  Inquire whether the school has recently administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a tool that measures the acquisition of critical thinking skills, and how students scored.  Take some time to read the student newspaper and explore the bulletin boards on campus, which give you a window into the campus climate.

Find out whether your school offers its own off-campus study programs and, if not, how easy it is to get credit for study abroad.  In our increasingly interconnected world, living and studying off campus is among the most valuable opportunities you’ll get in college.  Similarly, ask about how many service-learning courses are offered, which enable you to apply classroom learning to projects with community partners.  Studies have repeatedly shown these to be extremely impactful educational experiences. 

Find out about the availability of health services, including mental health counseling.  How quickly can you get an appointment, especially on weekends?  And how close is the nearest hospital?  Over four years there’s a good chance you’ll need to see a healthcare provider for something and when you do these things will be vitally important.

Finally, inquire about the effectiveness of the academic advising program.  In nearly forty years of teaching and administration I have rarely encountered a student who didn’t need guidance–to navigate college requirements, overcome academic challenges, or revise their academic plans.  Find out how academic advising works, what the ratio of advisors to students is, and how the institution supports the advisors who will support you.

Choosing a college can feel overwhelming.  The stakes are high and the financial investment is enormous.  But you don’t need to rely on superficial impressions, questionable rankings, or prestige.  There’s a smarter way to assess your options.  In college, you’ll be expected to address challenging questions by carefully gathering and assessing all the relevant data.  Now is a good time to start practicing. 

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