In the world of college admission there is always debate about the “best school” in the nation. As quickly as someone holds up Stanford or Harvard, someone else will poke holes in the methodology, or challenge that they may not be tops for every major, and so on and so forth. There are so many varying “sources” online these days that almost every school can tout a high-ranking or review in one area or another. “We’re among the nation’s best in ROI, or in STEM fields,” “We are the nation’s Greenest college” or “We have the best ice cream.” There is almost never a consensus or agreement on who really is “the best.” Perhaps that’s the beauty of this field– lots of great options and a desire to be the best in one thing or another, but clearly there is not a unanimous #1.
But in the world of music a definitive leader is apparent; a band that rises above the rest and leaves no room for debate: U2. From their lyrics to their history to their longevity, they simply define greatness. Glad we’ve established that.
A lesser known but important U2 song is 11 O’Clock Tick Tock. And in typical fashion, they always bring a lyric that is profound and broadly applicable to life:
“We thought we had the answers. It was the questions we had wrong.”
Asking the right questions, and being persistent in the asking, is a fundamental life lesson. And it’s absolutely vital as you go through the college admission process. So as you head out to college campuses, whether you are a sophomore or junior who is just starting to understand how one school varies from another, or a senior who is trying to figure out the best fit for the next few years, commit to being a relentless questioner. If you leave the question asking to the colleges, you can bet you’re going to hear the same answers over and over again. “Oh, yes. Our biology program is great.” “Sure. You can double major in English and Sound Design. That’s actually extremely common.”
The emails and the brochures paint the same Pollyanna pictures, mixing appropriate diversity with studious learners closely inspecting a beaker or electrical circuit.. Don’t accept the Charlie Brown speeches. As you talk to people at different colleges, turn off the switch that has them rambling about studying abroad or the number of applications they received and ask them something better.
1) You ask: “What is your faculty: student ratio?” This number may not include faculty who are doing research and teach only one class, or those who are on sabbatical, and so on. For example, Tech’s ratio is 20:1, but that doesn’t mean you and 20 buddies will be sitting around a table in Calculus I your first year. These stats are compiled for publications to be comparative. So while helpful in that regard, they don’t tell the whole story.
You SHOULD ask: “What is your most common class size?” This question gets you right into the classroom. Schools rarely publish average SATs or GPAs but rather bands or ranges. Likewise, you want to look at their ranges and variances within class size. 85 percent of classes at Tech have fewer than 50 students. That type of information will be far more helpful to you in framing expectations and determining what kind of experience you will likely have.
And THEN ask: “How does that vary from first year to fourth year? Is that true for all majors? What does that look like for my major?” I had an intro Econ class at UNC-Chapel Hill that had 500 students in it. But that was not my undergraduate experience. In fact, that was the only course I took all four years that was over 100. Similarly, one of my favorite student workers at Tech was a senior Physics major whose classes had seven, 12, and 16 students in them. But rest assured that during her freshman year she sat in a large lecture hall for Physics I.
Your job is to probe. Your job is to dig and to clarify.
2) You ask: “What’s your graduation rate?” Schools do not answer this the same. Some will give you their four-year grad rate, some five, and some six. The variance is not an effort to be misleading or nefarious; they have been trained to respond with an answer that is most representative of their students’ experience. Most four-year, private, selective liberal arts schools would likely not even think to respond with a five or six-year rate because there is no significant differentiation and their goal is to have all students graduate in four years. That’s how they structure curriculum and it is their culture.
You SHOULD ask: “What is your four and six-year graduation rate? And at those two intervals what percentage have either a job offer or grad school acceptance letter?” Who cares if you have a high graduation rate if your job placement rate is low?
And THEN ask: “How does grad rate vary by major? What percentage of students who double major or study abroad or have an internship finish in four years?” My opinion is too much emphasis is put on this clock. Unfortunately, much of this is antiquated and driven by US News and World Report rankings (we won’t delve into this too much, but you can read about here). If you are taking advantage of opportunities on a campus like picking up a minor, or participating in a co-op, or working to offset costs, or going abroad to enhance your language skills, and all of those things are translating into lower loan debt and more job or grad school opportunities when you are done, then who cares about the clock?
3) You ask: “What is your retention rate?” Great question.. and an important one. Most put the national average somewhere around the 60% range. But as you can see from that link, it varies by school type and student type. So when a school says their first-year retention rate is 85%, that’s great, right?
You SHOULD ask: “Why are those other 15% leaving? Is it financial? Is it because the football team lost too many games? Is it academic and they’re not prepared for the rigor of the school? Is it because the school is too remote or too urban or too big?” Follow up. Ask them to articulate who is leaving. Tech has a retention rate of 97.3%, which is among the top 25 schools nationally and top five for publics (these are statistics here, friends, not rankings). But we are constantly looking at who is leaving. Surprisingly, for many alumni and others who know the rigor of Tech, it’s not exclusively academic. It’s a balanced mix that also includes distance from home, seeking a different major, financial reasons, and, increasingly, because students are starting companies or exploring entrepreneurial options.
Some schools have retention rates below the national average, but they’re losing students who are successfully transferring to state public flagships or into specialized programs in the area. If that’s your goal, then you can be okay with a lower retention rate, right?
Don’t be too shy to ask questions. This is your job… Not your mom’s job…. Not your counselor’s job. Your job. DO YOUR JOB!
And THEN ask: What that’s it? Nope. I have more questions…and so should you.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in February 2017. Links have been updated.
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