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!