How to decide on a College

For the lucky student who is in a position to choose between competing offers from one or more colleges, some observations and advice:

As I said recently to just such a client, there are essentially two methods that I am aware of with definite merit. The first of these involves assembling a set of facts and making a rational, logical choice, based on the result of the comparison. The facts I believe to be relevant include the total cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, books, fees and estimated personal expenses) less any awards (grants and scholarships). Do not include loans in the award category – this only refers to “free money” that doesn’t need to be paid back. The resulting figure is your adjusted cost of attendance for one year.

I would balance the adjusted cost against multiple indicators of the strength of the institution. These might include recognized ranking systems, such as those used by U.S. News and Kiplinger, which are based on key institutional variables. I have my own set of variables that I scrutinize on behalf of clients. These include the selectivity of the school, the freshman retention rate (the percentage of students who return for a second year after the first), the 4-year graduation rate, the average class size and student/faculty ratio, and the percentage of classes taught by professors rather than by graduate assistants. With freshman retention, 4-year graduation stats, and classes taught by professors, the higher these numbers the better. With class size and student-faculty ratio, the lower the better.

For those who have a good idea of their academic major, or interests in particular programs like a sport or study abroad, scrutinizing programs and departments is a good idea. You may wish to initiate contact with these offices to see how receptive and friendly they are to prospective students. If you want to really get down and dirty, seriously plumb deeply buried institutional reports and see if the college has recently undergone accreditation review, or if it participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement. If the answer to either is yes and if any of the summary results are available, the information can be quite eye opening, as it will feature both strengths and weaknesses of the institution in comparison with others.

The alternative method may seem to be quite ephemeral in comparison with the logical comparative method, and yet I can’t discount it. I believe that a student’s gut response following a campus visit is absolutely important and not to be discounted. So many happy and successful college students that I’ve known have said something like the following: “I just knew, within minutes of setting foot on campus that this was the place for me.”

My best advice is to weigh rational assessments and gut reactions together, especially since I absolutely believe that there are multiple right colleges for each student. An institution with a strong profile that is making an overture of interest (possibly in the form of an award) AND that feels like a good fit will probably wear well over time. Happy deciding!

Identifying Your “Right Fit” College, Part I

Recently one of my student clients shared with me that his ideal college is Humboldt State University, located in Eureka, CA.  Curious as to how a Denver native came to fix on a school in northern California, I asked him how he developed such a far-flung goal.  He didn’t have a firm response, beyond the vague notion that they have a strong biology program, one of his interests.

 Having visited Eureka a couple of times, I shared with him that it reminds me of Boulder in a way – a smaller, even more granola version of Boulder, and with a weirdly fractured population dominated by students, faculty and staff associated with the college, and loggers, who are attached to the awe-inspiring nearby redwood forest.  All of this was news to Will, and at the moment I’m not sure if these impressions increased or diminished his interest in the school.

 This conversation reminded me of myself, more than 30 years ago, as I considered my college options.  For a time I was obsessed with Syracuse University, for reasons that escape me now.  I imagine I read something that made it seem cool. I then became focused on Antioch College, much closer to home for me as a native of southern Ohio.  I was intrigued by its progressive reputation, and I knew a bit about their co-op programs, which had students off campus doing seemingly fascinating things for long stretches of their enrollment.  This lasted until my mother proclaimed “You will attend a communist college over my dead body!” – so … so much for Antioch.  Ohio State offered me a small scholarship, and thus ended my brief period of college hunting.

 Students today have more college choices and more help in identifying their “right fit” college, I’m happy to say.  These include guidebooks readily available in libraries, bookstores and school guidance offices; school guidance counselors themselves, who know a lot, but who often are overburdened with large numbers of assigned students, especially at public high schools; electronic search programs such as Naviance, which invite a student to input key information in exchange for a list of probable matches derived from published data; and independent consultants, such as myself.  An advantage of independent consultants is the personalized attention received by student clients, paired with in-depth, first-hand knowledge of many colleges and universities.

 A good independent consultant considers her or himself a student of colleges, and has direct information about scores of schools across the U.S., as well as contacts at many of those schools, and of course access to information regarding features of those schools and their admissions’ policies.  My clients will benefit from my 20 years in higher education administration and direct knowledge of colleges as disparate as Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Bates College in Maine, Denison University in Ohio, Millsaps College in Mississippi, and Occidental College, in Los Angeles.  I continue to visit and study colleges with an eye to what about them may be of interest to my clients.

 Will hasn’t taken his SAT exams yet, so our investigation of schools is at a beginning stage, but soon he will have a more definite notion of whether he is truly interested in Humboldt State as a result of our explorations together.

 More on “right fit” colleges in Part II, forthcoming.

 Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former higher ed administrator, and head of a college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,