My first job out of college was working as a research associate for a university’s business school. My boss was an economist with a PhD and liked to tell about her first visit to a dog race track. She had studied all the stats for the dogs in the upcoming race, made her bet, and then returned to the stands meeting her friend. Her friend asked which dog she bet on and when my boss told her, the friend responded that she thought it wasn’t a very good bet. Of course, my boss started going into all the numbers and why it only made sense to bet on that particular dog. The friend finally interrupted and pointed, “but the dog is limping.”
What does this have to do with applying to college? As much as I am a believer in using numbers to compare colleges, you still really need to look at the individual colleges and see if anyone is “limping.” And by limping, I’m referring to issues that are important to you. Something that you may consider a negative, others may believe it a positive.
I think the numbers such as graduation rates and financial aid should set a minimum threshold. Once you have a list of colleges that meet the minimum data requirements, you really need to start visiting college websites as the next step in your research. There are things that you’ll find on a college website that won’t show up in any college rankings.
Here are 4 important things to make sure you look for on a college website:
1) Net Price Calculator
Net Price Calculators (NPC) are probably the most important tools families have in deciding where to go to college. Colleges are legally required to have NPCs and they are the closest students will get to knowing what kind of financial aid to expect without actually submitting the FAFSA.
There are several attempts to allow students to get the results from multiple colleges NPCs at once, but not all schools are cooperating. Hmmm, I wonder why. Even if families are able to get estimated average net costs at just one website, it’s still a good idea to visit individual college websites and take a look at their NPCs.
Why? Because not all NPCs are the same. The federal template is especially limited for families with incomes over $110,000. Another problem is that some calculators are not using the most recent data available. By visiting the college website, you can see which calculator is being used and have a better idea of its accuracy.
2) Course Schedule
College rankings and search engines will usually provide student/faculty ratios. Some will even list the percentage of classes by size which is better but still has its problems. Only by visiting the college websites can you find out what classes are actually being offered each semester and their size.
The course schedule will show which departments have large upper-division classes and which have the most closed courses. When you start finding 8:00 am courses closed, you should start asking questions about how many students are graduating on time.
The course schedule is also a good place to see who is actually teaching the classes. If a college appeals to you because of specific faculty members, then take the time to see what they’re actually teaching and your chances of getting into the class.
3) Campus Newspaper
If you want to find out what the students on campus are complaining about, there’s no better place to start than the campus paper. If nothing else, the paper should be covering whatever the student government is up to which should be representing student concerns to the administration. Pay attention to the opinion or editorial pages to see what is getting student’s blood boiling. Even if the paper comes out only every week or so, you can still go through back issues to see what has been happening on campus.
4) Career Center
Whether or not you believe that college is about creating better human beings or career preparation, the fact is that once students graduate, they’ll need to find jobs. Visiting the college’s career center can give you a sense of the programs available to help students in their job search. Some schools offer certification programs in job related skills. Some colleges require students to complete internships as part of the graduation requirements. Given the role that the internet plays today in the job market, college career centers should have useful website.
Michelle Kretzschmar created the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet , which contains information on over 1,500 colleges that families can use to identify the best schools for them. She has also created a 50-50 list of colleges that accept at least 50% of their applicants and have at least a 50% graduation rate. You can also learn more about using college websites in her new e-book Creating College Lists: Your Guide to Using College Websites to Pay Less for a Better Education.