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What Are the Best Ways to Determine Which College to Attend?

The EvoLLLution | What Are the Best Ways to Determine Which College to Attend?
Though common ratings systems attempt to give students a feel for how they might do at a given institution, no metric will ever be able to replace real interaction and understanding of a college or university.

Let me start with my conclusion: College and university rankings and ratings are incomplete and oft-times inadequate measures of which higher education institutions will enable first-generation, minority students to progress to and through the educational pipeline. What follows is an explanation of this conclusion and a significant additive approach for bettering the likelihood of student success in postsecondary education.

The validity and value of college and university rankings and ratings have been the subject of considerable commentary over recent years, and the level of debate increased with the Federal Government’s release in September 2015 of its own rating system called the College Scorecard. Many criticisms of the College Scorecard have been launched (despite the release of a plethora of useful data).Many rankings/ratings are regularly challenged, including because of how they measure or fail to measure what constitutes a “good” college.

The idea behind rankings and ratings isn’t bad. They ask this very legitimate question: How do students know if they are attending a quality higher education institution where the money they spend (and the amount they borrow) will lead to graduation and a successful career? I am not convinced that the criteria used in current rankings and ratings measure quality, in part because there is little consensus on what actually constitutes quality and how to determine and then measure quality (once we have defined it).

But, here’s something we do know. While rankings do impact college selection, they do not appear—as best as I can tell—to augment graduation rates at colleges. Many students drop out of college in sizable numbers. Many stop out. Too many students fail to graduate. And there aren’t enough spots at the elite colleges to meet the educational needs of the approximately eight million Pell-eligible students. So, the real question we should be asking is this: How can students attending colleges, particularly non-elite institutions, determine what institutions of higher learning will enable them to obtain a degree and progress into the workplace or graduate school successfully?

Here’s a short answer: No presently existing ranking or rating system can accurately answer the posted question.

This is because they do not measure many of the qualities that seem, based on existing studies as well as promising practices, to foster student success. There are enough data and suggestions on retention/educational progression to fill more than several books, including a forthcoming one of my own called Shoulders to Learn On. Working strategies, some of which could be quite easily measured, include:

  • An unapologetic focus on student success
  • Deep engagement opportunities especially before and then during the first year
  • “Intrusive” advising
  • Quality mental healthcare services that are accessed easily and without stigma
  • Easily available and student-friendly tutoring services, among other academic and psychosocial support programs
  • Internships and career development opportunities

These initiatives are particularly relevant for the students who are the first in their families to attend college, who are minorities or who are non-traditional. These are largely measurable items.

But—and this is my key observation here—at the end of the day, numbers are not the most significant measure of college quality. College quality is measured in how the place feels to prospective students—those intangible variables that send messages about whether or not the place seems like somewhere a particular student will be welcomed, where that student will be encouraged to thrive, where that student will fit in, where that student will develop lasting friendships, where that student will find mentors.

That is the difference between quantitative data (which is what rankings and rates rely on) and qualitative data (which is not measured as easily and is disregarded by some as “soft” data).

Believe me, I get the value of quantitative data and data-driven decision making. But college selection (forgetting for a moment some of the absurdities of the admissions process and the steering that accompanies it, not to speak of the money) should actually give great weight to qualitative variables, the often highly emotional (and not necessarily rational) elements that make up complex decisions. One’s sense of self is not measured in SAT or ACT scores, nor is it measured by the number of books in the library or the size of the classes. It is measured by the people who populate the institution at all levels and that institution’s culture in the broadest sense.

So assuming some validity to my observation, the problem rests in how to animate this qualitative approach in the real world. One can try to learn about a college or university’s “feel” by reading between the lines of guidebooks and rankings, visiting websites and participating in virtual tours, talking to existing students online, following Facebook and other social media outlets, listening to friends who are enrolled. One can peruse all the printed materials colleges produce (many of which, if you blanked out the name, would appear interchangeable). Most colleges say they provide personalized, student-centric educational experiences that foster student success. Saying obviously isn’t doing.

All of these sources, howsoever good and clever and inexpensive, are not a substitute for real live campus visits, recognizing that such an approach can be costly. Campuses have a ”sensibility,” and visitors can usually tell whether a place not only talks the talk but walks the walk. This means, though, that one has to do more than the formal admissions tour. Most folks only do that. That’s the wrong approach in my view as it provides too prescribed and too censored a perspective.

Prospective students and their families needs to walk around the campus, visit one of the dining halls, walk into the student center and the athletic facility, attend a class or two. And folks have to visit more than one educational institution because it is hard to gauge what one is seeing and feeling if there is no basis for comparison. And, students need to re-visit the very first college toured, even if they loved it.

This suggestion has a myriad of hurdles that can be boiled down to time, money and comfort level. First, for working families it takes time to visit educational institutions, and they want to visit at times that the college/university is in session – when students, faculty and staff are there full time. That eliminates most traditional vacations periods including summers. For many, taking time off work is nearly impossible.

Second, families need the funds to enable these visits. Wealthy students have no problem touring campuses across the nation with their family. They even start touring because some parents tie visits to vacations when their children are in high school. And, what blows me away is the airplane charter companies that offer package weekend trips so families can visit multiple locations across the nation. These aren’t cheap, ($150,000 give or take) although some offer a “reduced rate” package ($43,000)!

Third, there is the complexity of knowing and evaluating what one is seeing and having the courage to ask questions that get to difficult issues. If you have been on 40 campuses or have worked in or attended a college, you know what to ask – the questions for which the answers aren’t on the website or in the printed material. You need to be able to gauge what you’re seeing. But if a student is first-generation with parents who have never been on a campus or are uncomfortable on a campus (for many complex reasons including family dynamics), these visits will be fraught with tension.

So, if I had a magic wand or the power to redistribute how college and governmental resources are used, I would create a fund so that students who cannot otherwise afford it could visit campuses. And, they should bring members of their families. And, they can get assistance in determining what to see and what the observations mean. How much money would it take? Lots.

Now, there are some institutions, largely elite ones, which offer on-campus, overnight, fully paid-for visits to first-generation and traditionally underserved students. This is commendable, but limited to select groups. There are some high schools that provide trips to campuses and some non-profits too. But, here’s the key: many of the schools we would want students to visit are not wealthy and cannot themselves fund these types of visits (or they can fund only a wee number).

Now, if we were daring and changed where some college dollars are spent—bringing students to campuses rather than campuses to students at college fairs and similar events—there could be a savings there. If colleges were to diminish their print budget, those dollars could be repurposed for campus visits.

Here’s a thought. We could try this idea out on a pilot basis at several colleges and see how it works with some relatively small foundation dollars. High schools could collaborate with selected colleges so that students and their families are prepared for the visits. We could measure retention and progression and campus fit.

I think this idea may strike some as “over the top” and unnecessary. But, would you buy a car sight unseen with no test drive? Would you buy a house in a new community without seeing it and getting a sense of the place and space? Would you find and marry a romantic partner whom you only meet online with added Google-able data? I think most folks would answer that question: No.

We should not be so shocked then when new college students leave, when they are unhappy and when they do not sense a good fit. Of course, even with visits, errors are possible. Students are making decisions when they are 16 or 17 and the person they are may well change by the time they are 19 or 20.And, this is critically important to know: It is OK if a mistake is made and students land at a college that is not the right fit. They can transfer, and many students do. College is not prison. Folks can leave. Now, that said, we should make sure students are leaving for the right reasons. They should stay at least two semesters before moving on. Settling in takes time.

Bottom line, we can spend buckets of money producing and buying rankings and ratings. But, at the end of the day, it is my view—assuming accreditors are doing their job, which is to be sure a big if—that qualitative data matter. Indeed, qualitative data have the potential to give answers to the most important question: Is a particular college or university a place where students can succeed based on their own background, life experience, personality and values?

No paper or online ranking or rating system, however sophisticated, can replace how a human feels on a campus.

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