How You Should Judge Colleges: What Factors Should I Consider in Evaluating Colleges? (page 3)
There are many factors to consider when evaluating prospective colleges. It is up to you and your family to determine which criteria is most relevant for you. Some criteria are “make or break” ones, things that the colleges on your list must have in order for you to consider them; others would be desirable to have but they are not mandatory. If you can identify your “must haves” and optional factors ahead of time, making a decision as to which college to attend might be a little easier for you.
The following criteria should be taken into account when assessing possible colleges; only you know how much weight to give each one. Thinking about each factor carefully helps you shorten your list of potential colleges where you feel the most comfortable.
- Public versus Private
- Academic Programs
- Student Diversity
- Male/Female Ratio
- Campus Life
- Admissions Standards/Selectivity
- Family Issues
- Disability Services
- Study Abroad Programs/Co-ops/Internships
Let’s take a look at each of these factors.
Colleges come in many sizes, typically ranging from 1,000 students (a small college) to over 30,000 students (an extra large college). There are pros and cons of attending a small versus a large college. The size of the college may affect the number and selection of courses offered, opportunities for getting to know professors and students, the diversity of the students, and the types of campus activities that are offered. Our daughter attended a medium-sized private university which she loved, but it didn’t offer as many course selections as much larger universities.
If you come from a small high school, going to a supersized university may be overwhelming for you. Conversely, if you attend a large high school, going to a small university may feel stifling. Generally speaking, a smaller college has fewer courses to offer and there may be fewer clubs and campus activities to choose from. On the other hand, a smaller college may have smaller classes, making it easier to get to know professors and students. A larger college tends to have more courses to choose from, a more diverse student body, and more athletic teams and campus activities.
If you are unsure about your college major, a larger college usually offers more majors. If you switch majors, a bigger school is more likely to offer your new major, so you wouldn’t have to transfer to another school. One of the best ways to decide what size college is best for you is to visit small, moderately sized, and large schools to get a feel for which type of school fits best.
Location refers to both how far you are from home and whether you attend college in a rural town, a suburb, or a city. Location is a factor in which your family members may have strong opinions. Many students prefer to apply to colleges within two to four hours from their home, which gives students the flexibility of coming home between vacations. Many parents usually feel most comfortable with this distance from home. There are many questions you need to ask yourself when considering location as a factor in choosing a college:
- In what part of the country would you like to live during college?
- Do you prefer to attend college in a city, suburb, small town, or rural area?
- How close would you like to be to your home and your family?
- Can you afford airfare or train fare if you attend a college far from home?
- Can you and/or your family afford out-of-state tuition if you choose to attend college in another state?
The answers to these questions depend on how independent you are, your family situation, your finances, and your preferences for different types of climate. If one of your hobbies is skiing, then a cold climate would make sense for you. If, however you are a surfer, then a warmer climate would be best if you want to pursue your hobby. If you have a family member who is ill, you may need to be closer to home. If you want to become more independent and live away from home, then living at a college a few hours from home might be ideal.
Public versus Private
There are definite differences in attending a public versus private institution. A public university is state funded and usually has lower tuition than a private university. A private university is privately funded, and usually has higher tuition than a public university. If you are a resident of a state, you save money by attending a school in your state’s university system. If you are out of state, prepare to spend more money on tuition; however, it usually costs less money than a private university. One of the biggest bargains is the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which currently does not charge significantly more for out of state residents. When a friend’s son in a neighboring state was looking for a quality but reasonably priced university, I steered his family toward the SUNY system. Other bargains can be found on Kiplinger’s list of “100 Best Values in Public Colleges” available at Kiplinger.com. Private universities generally cost more than public universities, but with scholarships and financial aid, that may not always be the case. Many private universities have endowments, and they use these funds to attract students who are academically gifted or who will add to the diversity of their student population. It would be wise to compare the total costs of all colleges you are considering after you receive a financial aid package.
In addition to the financial aspect, there are other differences between a private and a public university. In times of economic distress, public universities may suffer from budget cuts from their state’s legislature, which could translate into fewer course offerings or larger classes. Private universities are not immune to budget cuts in economic downturns, but they may have more endowments to cover difficult times. Private universities sometimes offer more perks in terms of course offerings, food choices, dorm rooms, smaller class sizes, and more expansive celebrations. Open house receptions may be more lavish in private colleges, but that is a superficial perk which doesn’t affect the academic reputation of a university. Some parents believe a private university is superior academically to a public university, but that is simply not the case especially for the “Public Ivies.” Richard Moll created the term “Public Ivy” (Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985) to refer to public universities which offer an Ivy League quality education at a public university for a deeply discounted price. Moll’s original list of eight public universities has been expanded by Greene’s Guides (Collins, 2001) and others to include additional Public Ivies.
Some Public Ivies
- Binghamton University, State University of New York (NY)
- College of William and Mary (VA)
- Indiana University–Bloomington (IN)
- Miami University (OH)
- Rutgers University–New Brunswick, The State University of New Jersey (NJ)
- University of California (CA)
- University of Colorado–Boulder (CO)
- University of Florida–Gainesville (FL)
- University of Maryland–College Park (MD)
- University of Michigan–Ann Arbor (MI)
- University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (NC)
- University of Texas–Austin (TX)
- University of Vermont (VT)
- University of Virginia (VA)
- University of Wisconsin–Madison (WI)
The areas of study or majors offered by a college influence your decision to attend a college or university. Although the terms college and university are usually used interchangeably, there are some differences between them. A college is typically a smaller school which offers various degree programs within one college. They offer degrees at the bachelor’s level, and some also offer degrees at the master’s degree level. A university has several colleges within the broader university that offer specialized programs of study, such as a College or School of Education, Engineering, Nursing, or Business. A university offers more degree programs as well as doctoral level programs, including J.D. (Juris Doctor) and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy).
A majority of students enter college unsure of their major or area of study. It is very common not to know what your future career will be at the age of 17 or 18. One of the goals of attending college is to explore different subject areas, and many colleges encourage exploration during the first two years of school through what they call a core curriculum—a series of courses designed to introduce you to courses in the arts, literature, social sciences, math and sciences, and other areas. Typically, you do not have to declare your major until the end of your sophomore or the beginning of your junior year. It is also not unusual to change your major one or more times. So, how do you take into account academic programs when selecting a college?
Most liberal arts colleges offer psychology, history, math, English, and other common majors. If you are thinking about education, engineering, or business programs, you may want to look at a university where more programs of study are offered. Within the university, they may have separate colleges for different areas of professional study, such as a School of Education, a School of Business, or a School of Engineering. If you are considering a very specific major, such as linguistics, creative writing, broadcasting, physical therapy, or speech pathology, you have to check the list of majors offered at each university to ensure they offer your potential area of study.
Keep in mind that if you are considering going into the medical or legal profession, there is no pre-med or pre-law major in college. Rather, you select pre-law or pre-med as an advisement option. What this means is that you can major in any program of study, as long as you take the required prerequisites to enter a professional program or graduate school. You will be offered an advisor throughout your college years, who helps prepare you for these professional programs after you complete your undergraduate degree.
Colleges vary widely in the diversity of their college population. Most colleges offer a breakdown of their student population by geographic location and by student diversity. These statistics can be found in the college’s view book (marketing materials sent to students or found in high school guidance offices), on its Web site, or in college guides, which can be found in any public library.
If you are looking for low student diversity and you want to attend college with students similar to you, then you might be interested in a Historically Black college, a religious-affiliated university (Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, etc.), or a women’s college or men’s college.
If you are looking for high student diversity, a larger college or university would tend to have more student diversity, drawing from all areas of the United States and other countries. Some students feel more comfortable living and learning in an environment with others who are like them. Other students prefer to interact with and meet people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.
The male/female ratio on university campuses has changed to the point where it has become a factor to consider when researching potential colleges. Colleges which have very imbalanced female to male ratios greater than the norm of 60 percent females versus 40 percent males may be in jeopardy of losing students. When our youngest daughter was looking for colleges, she expressed concern over this ratio and it did play a role in choosing which college to attend. She didn’t want to attend a school where the female to male ratio was too lopsided. On the other hand, when a friend’s son heard about the ratio issue, he wanted to apply to schools which had many more females, so it all depends on your perspective!
There are some colleges that work very hard to balance the male/female ratio. This policy, however, can backfire when recruiting students, as it is possible that some well-qualified girls could be rejected in order to attract more boys in order to maintain a gender balance. Other engineering and technical schools, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), and Harvey Mudd, struggle to attract more female students, so girls may have a slight advantage in applying to these specialty schools.
If the male/female ratio concerns you, then you should be aware of the ratio at a prospective college. The information about the gender ratio is usually available on a college’s Web site under the “Freshman Profile” or “Class Profile” of the entering class.
Campus life can be defined as organized activities or spontaneous events that exist on or off campus. On most campuses, depending on your personality and interests, you can find an activity that you enjoy. Some campuses offer a Greek life, with sororities and fraternities, and your social life is often built around your adopted “brothers” and “sisters.”
Many colleges offer a variety of activities, including student government, campus media (newspapers, magazines, and radio stations), honor societies, academic clubs (Anthropology Club, Psychology Club), community service/social action clubs (Circle K, Students Against Destructive Decisions), special interest groups (a cappella singing groups, animé, photography), cultural organizations (Asian Student Association, Latino Students United, African Peoples Organization), and religious organizations (Hillel, Muslim Student Association).
A school’s geographic location, academic reputation, and whether or not it is a commuter college (where most students go home on weekends) can all affect student social life. As an incoming freshman, you want to get a feel for a college’s campus life before you enroll. If you were involved in a club in high school, you may want to continue your involvement with that organization or look for new experiences. As a freshman, it’s very important to immediately get involved in campus life as a way to make friends, avoid being homesick, and fully participate in college life.
Athletics is an important issue to consider if you play sports competitively or if you enjoy watching or playing sports for fun. If you play competitively, you may be eligible to participate in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which determines the rules regarding eligibility, recruiting, and financial aid for athletes. Students who intend to play a sport in college may want a Division I or II college, and students must be certified by the NCAA eligibility center. There are minimum grades, standardized test scores, and courses required for athletes. For more information, go to www.ncaa.org.
Cost, of course, is an important consideration in deciding which college to attend. You are not alone if you and your family are already worried about the cost of college, which has been steadily increasing. The cost of attending college includes:
- Fees (activity, registration, lab, and gym fees)
- Room and Board (housing and meal plan)
- Books and supplies
- Personal expenses (entertainment, laundry, . . .)
- Transportation (expenses to and from home, whether commuting or living on campus)
- Miscellaneous expenses (sports, fraternity/sorority, . . .)
Many students are hesitant to discuss the price tag of college when they are researching colleges. This issue is too important to discuss later on, after you’ve fallen in love with a school out of your price range. Don’t be afraid to discuss the financial reality of your situation during the initial stages of the college application process. Then when you receive your financial aid packages, you can freely discuss which college suits you best and is financially affordable.
How selective or competitive a college or university is can help you to decide if it is the right college for you. Later in the chapter, I’ll discuss how it is appropriate for you to choose a mix of schools, based upon your qualifications for admission. Colleges are generally categorized as less competitive, competitive, highly competitive, or most competitive. When selecting a prospective school, you need to examine what your qualifications (grades, difficulty of high school courses, and SAT/ACT scores) are, as compared to a college’s admissions standards. The more selective or competitive the college, the harder it will be for you to gain acceptance.
When evaluating potential colleges, you should explore, through research and visits, the college’s facilities. Facilities may include things like the athletic teams and fields, the library, the dorms, the food, the physical buildings and classrooms, the safety and security of the campus, and the use of state-of-the-art technology. All of these aspects of a campus’s facilities add to or enhance your experience at a particular college.
If you are considering a college for its athletic programs or for special talent (art, drama, dance, etc.), then its athletic fields or performance halls should be of vital interest to you. The dorms you will be living in during your college years can also affect your overall happiness there. Most freshman dorms are small, but as you become an upperclassman, your choice of housing improves. Campus food consists of several dining options, depending on what’s offered by that college. If you have dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian, kosher, or halal, you should make sure the college offers what you need. You need to select a meal plan (usually based on two or three meals a day for five to seven days per week) if you live on campus. You may hear people talking about the “freshman 15,” which refers to some freshmen who gain weight during their first year because of unlimited access to food which is hard to resist.
The physical buildings and classroom facilities can add to a college’s beauty and attraction. When considering a college, you may want to think about how far you have to walk from a parking lot or your dorm to get to the majority of your classes, and whether the physical appearance of the college appeals to you. Some colleges feature beautiful, older architecture, while others feature a sleek, more modern style. Is a college campus undergoing construction or renovations? If so, can you live with the noise and inconvenience during the construction?
Safety and security on campuses have become more essential in recent years. On most college tours, a guide discusses what the college does to maintain a safe and secure environment, including emergency phones, escort services at night, security guards or a police force, locked dorms, and other measures. Colleges do not readily disclose their crime statistics, but this is an important question to ask about as you are screening potential schools. Many colleges have set up instant communication methods with students via cell phones and text messaging to alert you to security situations on campus so you can take swift action if necessary.
Family issues, including divorce and illness, can play a role in which colleges you want to consider attending. You may have dreamed of attending school in another part of the country, but if you have a sick mother or grandmother, this plan may not be possible. Consider your family’s circumstances and wishes when selecting possible schools in order to avoid conflicts later on.