During Your College Visit, Ask These 8 Questions
Forget magazine ratings and focus on what’s right for you.
By Dr. Michael A. MacDowell, Former President, Misericordia University (PA)
Research materials and suggestions for families engaging in a college search are prolific. Families should use them all—but be careful, because college rating guides can be misleading.
One of the most popular of these guides is published annually by U.S. News & World Report. The magazine obtains information by surveying presidents, deans, and admissions officers at the nation’s colleges and looking at 3rd party data sources (including information each school is required to report to the government). However, few of these administrators are aware of all the developments at the colleges in their regions, and so mistakes are made.
With such a major decision at stake, what are a prospective student and their parents to do, given the questionable validity of these national rankings and the onslaught of materials that high school juniors and seniors receive from colleges?
One step is to narrow the kind of institution that a student is considering. Trusted high school teachers, counselors, and college alumni can help, but the first and most important rule is to know thyself. Know what kind of institution your student wants, and what will best meet your student’s needs.
Consider size of the institution and its location, as well as academic reputation and majors. Once your choices are narrowed, the important process of the campus visits begins. Here are some questions you should consider during your visit:
Ask specifically about a college’s retention rate.
How many students enter as freshmen and graduate within four years? This is important because the cost of a 5th or 6th year of college is high. Not only does it include additional tuition, room, and board, but the substantial opportunity cost of delaying for 1 or 2 years graduate school or entrance into the workforce.
Ask about a college’s job placement and graduate school placement rate.
Count the number of career counselors at each college and divide them by the number of students. This will give you some idea as to whether the career office is used by all students, as it should be—or just by seniors seeking help with their resumes.
Ask who teaches.
At many universities, undergraduates can progress through 2 or 3 years of college without having a professor in class. Instead, they are taught by graduate students or adjunct faculty.
Ask about the average and median class size.
It should be 30 or lower. Occasionally, a college will have what appears to be an acceptable student-teacher ratio, but that ratio may be heavily weighted by a small enrollment in upper division classes. Asking for the median value (the middle value) may offer more insight into the student-teacher ratio.
Ask about advising.
Faculty advisors are an important part of a quality college experience, but many colleges assign a low priority to academic advising. Faculty are not usually encouraged to provide the time to help students choose the right classes, internships, and graduate programs.
Ask as much about the core curriculum as you do about the majors.
Students today are inordinately interested in a particular major. But more than 50 percent of freshmen change their major in their 1st year, and many change it more than once. A broad core curriculum is important because it allows your scholar to sample different fields of study and provides what most employers and graduate schools say they want—an individual well-schooled in the liberal arts.
Ask about the opportunities to engage in undergraduate research with faculty.
At most large universities, it’s graduate students—not undergraduates—who participate in research with faculty.
Ask about admission to programs as well as the college itself.
Often a student is admitted into a university only to find out two years later that there is no room in the program or major they desire.
5 Bonus Tuition & Financial Aid Questions
After a student is admitted into a few colleges, they and their families are usually presented with another dizzying array of alternatives related to financial aid. If a family has been wise enough to save through SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards and other college savings programs, their options are much greater.
- Ask about the various types of aid that are included in the award letter. Be sure you differentiate grant and scholarship assistance from loan programs that eventually need to be repaid—and from work programs through which students accept jobs on or off campus to earn the funds listed in the award letter.
- Ask the Financial Aid office if the aid they are offering you has terms and conditions for continued eligibility.
- Find out if the scholarships or aid offered will be continued at the same level during the student’s sophomore year as the freshman year. This is important because freshmen occasionally receive larger packages in their 1st year than in succeeding years.
- Ask about the historical average annual increase in tuition. Remember, you will be paying tuition for at least four years.
- Ask the college or university if a different tuition rate is charged for certain programs —or if a fee isadded to the bills for certain majors. Often, there is a surcharge for certain majors.
Most important, don’t be overly concerned about the listed tuition—at least not at the start of your college search. Most private colleges offer aid which does much to span the gap between public institutions and private ones.
When all the questions have been asked and answered, when all the information is in, the final choice must be made based on the best fit for the student. It is essential to find a place where a student feels comfortable and knows that they can excel. The only thing more expensive than a college education is making the wrong choice about which college or university to attend. So, visit the colleges that are of interest to your student—and ask good questions.