Comparing Colleges: Asking The Hard Questions

There is plenty of information out there about comparing colleges based on data points, much of it useful. Obvious factoids include total cost of attendance, average amount of student need covered, retention and graduation rates, and so on. Colleges and universities prospecting for good students are masters at showcasing themselves in the best light possible, and families are at times overly impressed at what they hear during admissions visits.

As a former higher education administrator who both conducted studies and utilized data to build and enhance student support programs, I appreciate ways in which statistics can both illuminate and obscure reality. A recent case in point is the ongoing scandal implicating Claremont McKenna College of CA in the falsification of SAT scores of newly admitted students.

More so than misrepresentation by colleges, my bigger concern as an independent educational consultant is that families don’t always know what to ask of an institution, and secondarily, how to interpret the answers. For example, I suggest to my clients that they ask not just about the employment rate of recent graduates, but the percentage of recent graduates who are employed in their field of study.

I recommend especially that the parents of girls ask about the number of reported sexual assaults on campus over time, and suggest that they not be mollified by the number of blue-light emergency phones located near dorms and on the quad, but by prevention programs targeting student attitudes and risk factors – since the majority of sexual assaults on college campuses involve acquaintances and alcohol consumption, and don’t occur out of doors.

Similarly, while schools are delighted to report on their most popular majors and award-winning faculty members, few parents have heard of NSSE, the National Survey on Student Engagement, a research project that digs deeply into the quality and type of learning that occurs at many schools.  In their latest report on 2.1 million students at 750 U.S. institutions, NSSE reports on wide-ranging practices and experiences associated with high levels of learning and development, from the number of hours spent studying each week, classes requiring research papers, conversations with faculty members outside of class, and percent of first-year students doing service learning in conjunction with freshman classes. Not every school participates in NSSE, and among those that do, outcomes may not be fully reported unless they are positive. (See

Educational consultants and college planners are among those in the know about some of the nuances of comparing colleges, and this likely accounts for the increase in the utilization of such professionals. Whether you work with a seasoned professional or not, do your homework and ask some hard questions when considering college choices!

Retention and Graduation Rates: What Do They Reveal?

Increasingly savvy parents and the occasional savvy student may have caught on to the wisdom of digging beneath the sea of happy faces, success stories and attractive photos featured in admissions brochures and college websites in search of valid measures that can meaningfully be used to compare one school to the next. Two sets of interesting statistics are freshman retention rates and four-or six-year graduation rates, which every school is mandated to report. Along with other outcome measures, these numbers are included in the methodology used by U.S. News and World Report to determine their evaluation of a school.

First of all, why do these numbers loom so large in a school’s ranking, and why are they reported as they are? It is easy to understand the importance of graduation rates. With less than half of all college-bound students in the U.S. ever graduating, this outcome should tell us something about the degree of support provided by a given college to its students to help them make progress and complete a course of study. However, given the wide gulf between types of colleges and the degree of selectivity they employ, it also tells us something about the challenges and risks faced by less-advantaged students at some schools. Therefore these numbers should be considered in light of the selectivity of the school in question. Personally, I have been disappointed with the shift away from reporting four-year rates to six-year rates, and can only assume that this represents acquiescence to a new, more dismal national norm.

What does it mean that the greatest focus in retention (re-enrolling from one year to the next) stresses freshman retention? This is because at most colleges the greatest loss of students occurs within the first year of enrollment. Many of the students who are lost in their first year of study never re-enroll, or repeat the pattern of enrolling and dropping out at more than one college. Therefore, freshman retention is critical, both for institutions, and for students themselves.

So, how do we meaningfully compare a college like the University of Denver, with an 87% freshman student retention, with Colorado State University, with its 83% rate, or the University of Colorado with its 84% freshman retention? And does it suggest that Metropolitan State College of Denver, often called Colorado’s College of Opportunity, is a colossal failure with its 67% retention rate and 21% graduation rate? (BTW, just for the sake of comparison, at most Ivy League colleges like Harvard, freshman retention sits right around 99%.) The numbers matter, but they must be interpreted in the context of the school’s mission and selectivity.  Metro State enrolls large numbers of first generation, low income, minority and adult students, and this exerts an effect.  It is also true that some Metro students are pursuing certificates or plan on transferring elsewhere, so this unfairly skews both sets of numbers. In my view the best use of retention and grad numbers is to help families ask hard questions of a school about how they are supporting their students.

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.