Some people advise that this entire process be activated and driven by the student. My philosophy is that this process is too important, expensive, and difficult to be left to the student, so I do most of the work to get my students to college but include them in the entire process.
Start asking friends and family about good colleges with the major in which your student is interested. This is how most students begin their college searches, and it is quite effective.
Next go online and search for colleges using some of the search engines available for students, like The College Board’s (SAT) service called Big Future, and Princeton Review’s college search.
Does it have her major…AND the major she will switch to in six months?
Even though ABC University is your alma mater, and your student’s best friend is going there next year, if the university doesn’t offer your student’s major, it’s not the right school for her. Instead, the universities to consider should have a very strong department in the area in which your student is interested. For example, if she is interested in education, only consider universities that offer several majors in the education department because at 17 years old, it is very difficult for her to completely understand her strengths and interests in the broad field of education until she takes some classes. Another example would be a student interested in a business degree. The business department of the university she chooses should have several options for majors (e.g., finance, management, business administration, accounting, marketing, international business, etc.) in case she finds a specific or different area that resonates with her during her years of study.
Statistics Reveal A LOT
Some key statistics will help your student figure out if the college is a good fit for a visit.
Big Future, and Princeton Review, along with Niche and National Center for Education Statistics, give some helpful numbers.
- Graduation rate in 6 years. This number tells how easy it is for students to access the classes they need and how efficient the academic system is at the university. For example, a student at a university with a 37% graduation rate in six year will have serious problems getting the courses and support she needs to graduate, in comparison to a student at a university with a 73% rate.
- Returning Sophomores, or Retention Rate. This number is a good indicator of how satisfied and connected students are after the first year at the university. Look for a retention rate of over 80%.
- Out of State Students. The percentage of Out-of-State students determines two crucial factors:
- Destination University. If students are coming from far and wide to attend the university, it’s probably because it has unique, important, and desirable qualities, like reputation, academics, environment, atmosphere, etc. Universities that have low Out-of-State student percentages are often chosen by students who are more focused on convenience than academics.
- Weekend Life. Universities with a high percentage of Out-of-State students are lively on weekends because most students can’t go home. Instead, they make the campus their social life, they find study groups on Saturdays, and the Student Life department plans weekend activities. At universities where most of the students are close to home, the campus empties out on weekends, the cafeteria and coffee shops close down, and the dorms are like a ghost town. If you want your student to experience campus life on weekends, this statistic is the one to watch.
- Average Age of all full-time students. If a college has an average age of 26, it means it is a commuter college that draws students returning for the completion of a degree. Look for an average age of 20 so your student will be with her peers.
- Average ACT Score. There are differing views on how to treat this number. Some say to choose a university where the student is at the top end of the average ACT score so the university will be inclined to entice the student to come with extra scholarship money, and in so doing, boost the university’s average. I am not sure of the merit of that argument. My philosophy is to look for a university where my student’s ACT score is in the midrange of the average so her peers will motivate her academically, and the academic rigor will be a reasonable fit. For example, if the student’s ACT score is 28, look for a university where the average ACT score is 25 – 30 or 24-29. If the university has an average ACT score too far above the student’s score, the student will probably have to work really hard in order to maintain a C grade point average.
- Size. Total number of students is helpful for students deciding how much variety they want on campus. Some like the small, under-1,000 campuses. Some want the medium-size 2 to 5,000 campus with more majors and more activities. And finally, some students want the large campuses because of the advantages of opportunities and name recognition. Visit each size so your student understands the differences.
How do they regard PSEO credits?
If the student has accumulated a boatload of PSEO credits, one of the first questions to ask the university over the phone is Can you show me how each credit will be applied to my student’s degree requirements? This is a very different question from Will you accept PSEO credits? For example, one university puts all of the student’s PSEO credits in the electives bucket, so the student would need to retake any core courses for her degree. Another university only accepts 6 PSEO credits. Another university applies the PSEO credits to the appropriate courses only if they weren’t necessary for high school graduation. Another university applies the PSEO credits appropriately except the math credits if the student is a math or science major; those students need to retake all of their math classes at that university. Because of the value of these PSEO credits (monetarily and psychologically), we walk away from universities that do not apply the majority of PSEO credits directly into the related courses.
As soon as my student has an idea of which university she wants to pursue, I start the conversation with the registrar to make sure the PSEO courses for which my student is signing up will be directly applied to the required courses at that university. If the registrar is not willing to help me, then the university falls off our list. Because of the importance of the degree, the cost of the education, and the great variety of universities available, we get to be choosy.
Don’t shop by Sticker Price!
Using just the price that universities post on their website, you might walk away from some really good deals and really great fits. My kids have attended Christian universities for about the same price as the University of Minnesota. The Sticker Price is not the final price; private universities have endowments for scholarships that can make the cost competitive. Pursue each option.
In a future blog I will discuss how to visit universities. In the meantime, start making your list because spring of the junior year is the best time to start visiting.