College shopping? Do your homework
Due diligence. When making a major investment -- a car, a house, a thousand shares of stock in a publicly traded company -- most of us do some serious homework. We kick the tires and read Consumer Reports. We bring in a consultant to inspect the property. We read 10Ks and the Wall Street Journal.
A college education is one of the greatest investments a family will ever make, yet the due diligence process is anything but systematic. The college guides leave out many excellent schools. College Web sites and admission materials can oversell and under-inform. The answer to the most significant question a prospective student is likely to ask -- what is the institution's track record with people like me, with my interests, goals, talents and resources? -- is nowhere to be found. The "sticker price" often has little or no relation to the real cost when merit- and need-based aid is taken into account, which isn't known until you're an admitted student.
In my three decades in higher education, I have informally counseled hundreds of high school students -- often the children of trustees, neighbors and faculty and staff colleagues -- about college choices. I try to be an "honest broker," because I know that one size, even my own institution, does not fit all (although I cannot claim that I don't have strong opinions about what constitutes a great college education and experience).
Often these young people will say things to me that they won't say to their parents. They know what Mom and Dad want. The issue is what's right for them. When we meet, after going through the obvious questions about them -- class rank, board scores, AP courses, activities and interests, financial or family constraints, special characteristics or achievements -- I ask the "big" opinion questions:
• Large vs. small? Why?
• Rural, urban, suburban? Why?
• Close to home or far away? Why?
• Non-sectarian or church-affiliated?
Armed with their answers, I drill down on some less obvious questions they ought to address -- depending upon their needs and circumstances -- as they make their college visits:
• Are all the courses at the school taught by real faculty, and not teaching assistants?
• Is the average class size less than 25? What is the average class size for first-year students?
• Does the school have a solid liberal arts curriculum, with emphasis on writing and a broad background in the arts and sciences for all students, regardless of major?
• Does the school have majors in fields you might expect to find only in a big university, such as theater, graphic design, entrepreneurship and athletic training?
• Is the school's location one where you can get a good job, both while you're in school and afterward?
• Is the location one where you can have easy access to great internships?
In high-tech and international businesses?
In top-notch scientific laboratories?
At theatres and other cultural institutions of a world-class city?
• Is the school easy -- and inexpensive -- to get to, by car, plane and public transportation?
• Is the school committed to excellence in athletics, with a broad-based program that is both highly successful and open to students with a wide range of athletic skills?
• Have recent graduates gone on to top graduate and professional programs, and received prestigious fellowships?
• Is the school financially healthy? Does it make its audit report available? Does it have sufficient funds to provide a strong program of need- and merit-based scholarships?
• How well do alumni support the school? How do they rate their education?
There are no sure things in the college choice process. But if I've learned anything in 30 years of teaching and college administration, it is that often what students most value about their education after they graduate is something they didn't even think about when they and their families were looking at schools. That's a lot to leave to chance.
Ask questions, lots of questions. It's an investment for life.