Our first piece of advice for families asking how to find the right college is to encourage them to downplay college rankings in their selection process.
Rankings are really good at collecting information that you don’t need and then creating a rating system that (while it might use good data) doesn’t answer the real question. Also note that there are excellent schools, like Reed College, that don’t participate in the rankings at all. Will that mean you won’t consider a college just because it won’t participate in rankings? Then throw in the mix that places like Claremont McKenna College, Bucknell University, George Washington University, Iona College, and Emory University (among many, many others) have each been charged with cheating their rankings by cooking their books.
So where does this leave you? Here are a few ideas to help you and your students investigate schools and programs.
First, look at the faculty and course offerings. Who are the professors? What courses do they teach? Peruse their bios and look for respectable academic work and then check how many courses they teach for undergraduate students. It’s great to have Nobel Prize winner on staff, but what’s the point if they never see the inside of a classroom? Are there a ton of cool classes to take, or are there only three that your student is really interested in? Are there a good number of full-time faculty in each department, or are there a lot of adjunct faculty that teach one course and then leave campus? Are the faculty actually members of that department, or are they borrowed from another department? These are important details to sift through.
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Berkeley
Next, look at the quality of the departments. Let’s use engineering and business as two examples.
For engineering programs, consider two things. First, make sure the department has ABET accreditation. Most of the reputable engineering schools easily make this hurdle, but it’s good to check. Second, make sure that the ABET-approved degree that your student will receive is in their discipline. For example, University of Maryland has a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. However, their accreditation is only in Civil Engineering, not Environmental Engineering, and your degree from that department is technically only in Civil Engineering. At Johns Hopkins, you can get a BS degree that’s actually in Environmental Engineering.
For business programs, start by researching these two things. First, again make sure the department has accreditation. Second, check that the specific interest (e.g., marketing, finance, real estate) your student has is well represented at that school. Realizing that an otherwise strong business school doesn’t have the specialties a student wants is a valid reason to cross that school off their list.
For a bigger picture feel of each college, consider a campus visit (if possible) or attend virtual tours and information sessions offered by admissions offices. Many offices are also scheduling informal chats with staff members and current students—ask them questions about everything from academics to student life to housing to dining options. If you want to know what the expectations are and the experience is like, ask the people who know best.