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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Digging Deep When Researching Colleges & Universities

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When researching colleges, many people gravitate to what they consider to be “great” schools without having any idea whether those institutions merit their reputations or even whether the reputation is that of the graduate school(s) or the undergraduate school(s).
It is critical to understand that no college or university is uniformly excellent, average, or just plain bad. 

Where Schools Differ in Quality

The real differences in the quality of an institution are found within the various academic departments and programs.
For example, a university may have a tremendous business department which enjoys a strong job placement record for its graduates, but have a weak faculty and mediocre facilities in the biology department which, in turn, has a poor track record of graduates being accepted into graduate school or finding jobs.
When exploring schools, it’s extremely important that families drill down and ask critical questions about the education students are getting in the departments of particular interest to their child.
From a recent article by Kevin Carey in the New York Times, "The Fundamental Way that Universities are an Illusion," comes

"The bible of academic research on how colleges affect students is a book titled, plainly enough, “How College Affects Students.” It’s an 848-page synthesis of many thousands of independent research studies over the decades. The latest edition was published in 2005 by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, professors at the University of Iowa and Penn State.

The sections devoted to how colleges differ from one another are notable for how little they find. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini carefully document, studies have found that some colleges are indeed better than others in certain ways. Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers, for example, and earn a little more after graduating from more selective institutions.
But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

So, How Can You Determine Which Schools are Best for Your Child?

When researching possible colleges, it's essential that you evaluate the kind of education students are getting in academic department(s) of interest to your child.  Here are some things you can do:


Visit the academic department website.  Read everything you can.  Look for information like this:

Departmental Mission Statement & Description of its Undergraduate Education
Undergraduate advising
Graduation Outcomes - graduate school acceptances, employment stats of recent graduating classes
Number and background of the professors in the department - read their CVs
Number of undergraduates in the major (NB Some schools are discontinuing unpopular majors in order to cut costs)
Undergraduate Research Opportunities - overall and by professor
Opportunities for internships and co-operative education placements
Faculty Awards - particularly those for teaching
Undergraduate Awards (Rhodes, Fulbrights, Goldwater, etc.)
Departmental newsletter
Student clubs associated with the major


After identifying a promising school, your teen should reach out to one or two professors and ask intelligent questions about the major.  If the professors don't answer their email, call the department secretary and ask her the questions.  Also mention that the professor didn't answer the email - perhaps she'll explain why. That tells you more about that professor and department.

Some sample questions for your student to ask:

How much access do undergraduates have to professors?
Is there access outside office hours?  Are office hours adequate to give interested students time?
On a 1-10 scale, how would you rank the professors in your department?  Why?
How easy is it to find mentors among the faculty?  Do undergrads have a faculty advisor?
Are lower division classes simply meant to weed out students or are efforts made to keep students progressing in the major?  Or both?
How would you rate the academic quality of the courses?  Why?
What are graduates from the major doing now?
Is there support for those desiring to attend grad school?
Is study abroad possible with this major?
What haven't I asked that is also relevant?
Would they give contact information for one or two recent graduates or upperclassmen in the major so I can contact them?


Visit the college before you apply.  Meet the professors. Talk to students in the major.  Sit in on general ed/core classes as well as in classes in the majors you are interested in. Spend a night in the dorm.  Ask about places to study, dorm life, social life, etc.

In Summary

It is absolutely essential that families look beyond the general reputation of the colleges when determining which to apply to.  I am often asked whether a certain school is right for a student.  I can't answer that question without doing a lot of research and interviewing the student.  Remember, one-third of students end up transferring from one college to another.  That makes the necessity of doing this hard work BEFORE applying obvious.

Learn More...

The best way to cut the costs of college is to become an educated consumer.  I'll be offering my Keys to College Success Webinar several times this summer.  Register here.

-Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS

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