Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Choosing a College: 7 questions to ask before picking

It's the moment of truth: You or your child has been admitted to more than one college and now needs to pick one.

You'll make a wiser choice if you ask each finalist college's admissions representative these seven questions. These are the sorts of questions that insiders ask when choosing a college for their kids or for themselves.

If you're worried that asking seven may be too probing, just ask the few you most care about.

May I see the results of the most recent student or alumni satisfaction survey? Most colleges conduct student or alumni satisfaction surveys. Seeing the results will show you how a large sample of a college's students or graduates rate their experience in and outside the classroom, including employability. If an institution doesn't post it on its website, refuses to email it to you, or says it hasn't conducted a student or alumni satisfaction survey, that's instructive in itself.

What are the statistics on campus crime? The Clery Act requires all institutions to collect crime prevalence data on and surrounding campus. 

May I see the executive summary of the accreditation visiting team report and Association Action? Nearly all colleges periodically undergo an accreditation process. That culminates in a visiting team's report on the institution's strengths and weaknesses and an Association Action. The latter states the number of years before the institution must undergo its next review. It it's much sooner than ten years, it may be cause for concern. The visiting team report will explain the reasons for a short term of accreditation.

Given my academic record and my family's income and assets, how much cash and how much loan will I be likely have to pay in the first four years, and if it takes me longer to graduate, in years 5 or 6?  On many if not most colleges' websites, it's difficult to find even the one-year cost-of attendance, even unadjusted for student record, and family income and assets. Your cost of attendance depends heavily on those. Complicating matters more, at some colleges, your bill may rise significantly after the first year, with an especially big increase if you don't graduate in four years. And lest you be too sure you'll graduate in four years, know that nationwide, less than 37 percent of freshmen at so-called four-year colleges graduate in four years. Only 58 percent graduate in six years!

How much do students with high school grades and SAT score like mine grow in critical thinking, writing, etc? That's important even if you or your child is attending college mainly to get a better job. Why? Because the better you write and think, the more likely you are to succeed in nearly any career.

Many if not most colleges test at least a sample of its incoming and graduating students on such skills as writing and critical thinking but few colleges make the results public. That's understandable because, as reported in a major national study, Academically Adrift, a shocking 36  percent of students nationwide "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" between freshman and senior year.

Colleges vary in effectiveness, so you want to find out how your candidate colleges measure up. If a college doesn't post this information on its website, refuses to tell you, or says it doesn't measure student growth, that's instructive in itself. 

What is your four- and six-year graduation rate for students with grades and test scores like mine? The graduation rate varies greatly across institutions and on the student's high school record. Comparing your finalist colleges' graduation rates will be instructive but don't give that undue weight in choosing a college. That's because an institution can jigger a high graduation rate by lowering standards. For example, at one institution, administrators meet with faculty members who give a failing grade to an above-average percentage of students. Rather than praising those professors for their high standards, the message subtly is "lower your standards."

What percent of graduates are professionally employed within one year of graduation, broken down by major? What percent are in graduate school? The institution's alumni survey usually contains such information. 

Asking even some of these questions will increase your chances of picking an institution at which you'll be happy, successful, and feel was worth your money and years.

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