I’ve been getting questions from parents who are agonizing about where their teenagers should attend college.
It’s a tough decision and time is running out to pick the winners. The national deposit day for freshman is May 1.
Here are some of choices facing a family that contacted me yesterday:
St. Olaf, Grinnell, Bryn Mawr, Whitworth, Rose Hulman and Trinity.
A friend of mine came over last week to talk about her son’s final four:
Willamette, Lewis & Clark, University of Redlands and Texas Christian University.
My friend’s son appears to truly not know where he wants to go and he also has no idea what his major might be.
I’m going to share the advice that I gave my friend that might help other families with this big decision. Taking this approach is going to be better than flipping a coin!
1. Review the finances.
It should be easier to eliminate schools from a list if they are too expensive. I don’t think any school is worth going into scary debt. In my friend’s case, two of the schools gave her son merit scholarships and two didn’t. If you aren’t sure you are reading the financial aid letters correctly, here are a couple of my posts that could help clear up the confusion:
2. Check student opinions.
I’d check out student opinions at Unigo and College Prowler. You might be surprised at how candid students are in their reviews. If you read enough of them you might be able to see a consensus of opinions.
3. Ask students questions.
Students making last-minute visits to schools should stop several students and ask these questions:
- What do you like about your school?
- What don’t you like about your school?
- What would you change about your school if you could?
- Why did you pick this school and would you do it over again?
Teenagers who won’t be visiting should ask the school to connect them with current students who can chat by phone or Skype.
If a teenager thinks he/she knows what his major will be, try to arrange to talk with students in that department to get the real scoop. Also see if you can chat with professors. You might have a tougher time pulling this off at a university where professor contact with undergrads can be more limited.
4. Know the Difference Between a College and a University.
Many parents and students don’t understand how vastly different a college can be from a university.
Students who have both on the list, such as the teenager above who applied to San Diego State and Sarah Lawrence, would have a dramatically different experience at each of these schools.
Here is a primer on what the differences are between these these two types of institutions:
5. Check a school’s graduation rates.
You don’t want to get stuck at a school for five or six years. You can obtain the four, five and six-year rates for any institution at College Results Online or at the microsite of The Chronicle of Higher Education. To reach the latter site, you can just Google College Completion.
6. Research how happy are the freshman.
Ideally, you’ll want to attend a school where the vast majority of students stick around after their freshman year. You can find freshman retention rates at College Results Online and at the federal College Navigator. Here is a post I wrote about freshmen retention rates for my college blog: How Happy Are the Freshmen?
7. Check RateMyProfessors ratings.
You can get a sense of the quality of teaching at a school by looking at its composite professor ranking for its faculty. Millions of students have ranked professors on a 1-to-5 scale at RateMyProfessors.
You can also drill down and see what the rankings are for individual departments and professors at a school. Here is a post that I wrote recently about this site: Are the Professors Any Good?
8. Check the Prof Ratings at the Princeton Review.
Every year The Princeton Review publishes its big thick guide — the latest I have is The Best 376 Colleges 2012 Edition. In that book, you can see how participating students at each of the schools rates their professors in these two categories:
- Profs interesting rating
- Profs accessible rating
If schools on your child’s list are in this book, check the professor rankings. Read the following post that I wrote about what I discovered after I poured through the Princeton Review ratings:
9. Know the graduation requirements.
This is an excellent suggestion from Paula, a mom and frequent visitor to my college blog: Students should compare the general graduation requirements for each school as well as the requirements for their presumed major. In terms of graduation requirements, further foreign language, writing courses, and/or math/science study would be a deal breaker for some students.
Paula’s son attends Willamette University which requires four semesters of language! That was a deal breaker for my own son Ben after he applied to the liberal arts college in Salem, OR.
10. Discover how the school treats AP credits.
Find out if a child’s AP credits will count.
11. Inquire about a Greek presence.
I don’t mind admitting that I’m not a fan of the Greek system. When looking at student life, teenagers should assess what impact fraternities and sororities have on the campus. Do you want to attend a school where a large percentage of students are Greek? I am sharing the link to a hellacious story about runaway fraternities at Dartmouth that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine:
There isn’t one perfect school for your child. If a student is committed to making college work, he or she will be fine at just about any school.
Does anybody have any other suggestions for last-minute college research? If so, please share in the comment box below.