How to Tell What a College is Really Like
About 1/3 of students end up transferring to another college.
For some families, the planning, stress and excitement of finding the right college can be much like buying a house. You want to make the best decision by choosing an institution with all the items on your “wish list.” And, of course, you want to get your money’s worth. But when it comes to narrowing down the list and making the final decision, it may become more difficult.
To help you and your teen see beyond the slick brochures, impressive websites and campus visit hospitality, we’ve provided the following checklist—not to help you determine if a school is a good one, but to help you see if it’s the best one for you.
Nearly 40 percent of students who transfer lose an average of 13 credits (that’s equivalent to one semester!).
The Pre-visit Checklist
Research the course offerings:
Make sure your school of choice offers your first, second and maybe even third picks, since 50-70 percent of students change their majors at least once.
Investigate campus crime stats:
Research using the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool (ope.ed.gov/security). Take it a step further and Google the city and surrounding areas to get an overall feel for community, too.
Stalk the college’s social media:
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and YouTube are great tools! Check out the college’s main account but also look for pages related to their athletics, Greek life and other organizations.
To Visit or Not?
Should You Visit a College You Can’t Afford?
So you’ve checked out a college’s website and looked into available scholarships but realize that the cost exceeds your budget. What should you do? Should you even bother with a campus visit if it’s unlikely your teen can even go there?
Tracy Phillips, Campus Experience Coordinator at Jacksonville State University, shares the upside and downside to visiting a college you can’t afford.
The Upside: There may be a way
“Visiting allows the student to compare and see what different schools offer. Who knows, you may learn about a special scholarship for your major or another way to help supplement paying for college on your visit. JSU offers a great Junior College transfer scholarship and some students don’t find out about it until they come for a visit. You may see the school could be within your reach if that’s the case.”
The Downside: false sense of hope
“In today’s economy there are limits, and students need to find a school that fits their pocketbook and their interest. Visiting more affordable schools, where you know you have scholarship opportunities, encourages students to see more of a ‘true’ picture. Breaking the bank just to go to a specific school just isn’t smart.”
The best way to address financial concerns is to start talking about it with your teen sooner rather than later. Help them weigh in on the amount of hard work it will require on their part (i.e. earning more scholarships, getting a job to pay for expenses, taking out student loans). Determine if the expenses are worth the investment. Will attending this institution guarantee a greater chance of employment or higher salary once they enter the workforce?
Good Guideline: When it comes to student loans, avoid borrowing more than the first year’s salary of your career choice.
8 Tips to Get a True Feel For The School
1. Talk to current students:
Talk to students to find someone with a situation similar to yours—whether they moved far from home, have your same major or share similar interests, such as participating in athletics, a fraternity or sorority, or other campus activities.
2. Sit in on a class:
The experience will help you determine if you think you like larger, lecture-hall type classes or if you might perform better in a smaller class setting, with more participation.
3. Meet with a professor:
Ask specific questions about courses required for your major and the career field you want to pursue. Also, take the opportunity to learn about what academic services are available, such as tutoring, office hours or even support labs.
4. Check out the career services center:
It’s not too early to find out what resources are available to help students thrive in their careers. Find out if the school can help place you in internships or apprenticeships, and if it offers job fair opportunities and interview prep support such as mock interviews, resume help or professional headshots.
5. Talk to a financial aid advisor and admissions counselor:
These representatives are often the decision makers regarding institutional scholarships. Ask about specific opportunities that might suit you.
6. Spend the night:
Spending the night on campus can help students better imagine what it’s like living there. Several Alabama colleges, like Judson College in Marion and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, allow overnight visits. Jot down the vibes you get during your stay and ask around to see what students do on the weekends. While you’re at it, check into curfews and other housing regulations.
7. Eat in the dining hall:
While cafeteria food may not exactly be the same as a “nice home-cooked meal,” students should still check out what’s offered so they and their parents can build a realistic meal plan budget.
8. Take a Detour:
Give yourself a tour apart from the official one. Take the time to check out bulletin boards, pick up the school paper, ask to view a yearbook and attend a club meeting or event to get a better feel for everyday life around campus. You may also want to ask about local churches or campus ministries or even consider attending a pre-college summer program.
After the excitement of “going to college” wears off and reality sets in, students may find that college life is different from what they imagined. Here are some factors to consider when deciding which college to attend:
Going the distance
If the school you are considering is several hours away, determine what kind of activities and entertainment are available off-campus. Will you be okay if you can’t travel home often? Also, be sure to find out if transportation will be an issue—not all colleges allow freshmen to have vehicles on campus.
Plugging in spiritually
Connecting with a college ministry or spiritual group can be a great way to make like-minded friends and stay spiritually grounded. Check into churches or organizations in the area.
Making the adjustment in housing
Resident Assistants are there to help resolve roommate issues or problems that arise within college housing. Be prepared to face some challenges when sharing close quarters with another person. Thinking of living off-campus? It may be cheaper but navigating parking (and towing!) and collecting rent from roommates may create more challenges.
“My daughter and my son both were interested in going to out-of-state schools, so I asked them to give me a list of five reasons why they chose those schools. I wanted them to think carefully about if that school fit their needs and meshed well with their future plans.”
- Cheri L., mom of four teens
Finding a mentor
Advisors or peer mentors can help students stay on track and learn ways to succeed academically. Check with the Dean of Students and department heads for programs.
Find a Study Buddy
Many students are surprised at the level of academic rigor at their new college. Professors may be less sympathetic, classes may be much larger and the amount of material covered may be much greater. Many colleges have freshmen success centers that tutor students and help them focus on the areas that need improvement (study skills, research papers, writing skills).
My kids thought they had a lot of free time—but it’s really just unstructured time. They had to learn how to schedule themselves to study and prepare for class.
- Beth B., mother of three
Hidden costs of college
College can be expensive—Ask questions early about the total cost of college including these seemingly less expensive costs:
• Game & Season Tickets
• Campus Parking Permits (and towing)
• Transportation Fees (a.k.a. campus bus)
• Student Activity Fee
• Meal Plans
• Class and Lab Fees
• Books and Materials
• Fraternity and Sorority Fees
The costs of going Greek:
Expenses related to joining a fraternity or sorority vary by affiliation and school, but usually include a membership fee that can run from $90-$350 a month, one-time initiation fees, along with other costs associated with housing, social events and Greek gear.
Narrow the Field
Sometimes narrowing down your college choices can be as simple as knowing you want to attend a school that was designed with people like you in mind. Check out three college experiences that may be the right fit for you.
Religious Affliated Institution?
Hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation are religiously affiliated, from small liberal arts colleges to large universities. When considering a religiously affiliated school, it’s important to understand the influence that religion has on the day-to-day operations of the university, and decide if it’s the right fit for you. Some points to consider:
• Students may be required to take religious classes, and faith may play a significant part in classroom discussions.
• Chapel and other religious services may be required.
• Keep in mind that many schools accept students from all backgrounds, but others might give preference to students of the same religious affiliation.
• Some schools may not allow co-ed floors in the dorm, or they may require students to abide by open-door policies and curfews for visits with students of the opposite sex.
One often overlooked option for female students is women’s colleges. With about 50 of these institutions currently in the United States, the impact they make on their students and the community has been profound. We dispel a few myths about women’s colleges and list opportunities they have to offer.
Myth #1: Women can’t prepare as well for the real world without being around men:
Women’s colleges offer space for women to grow and develop leadership skills and self-confidence in an environment free from worries of being judged by social constraints regarding gender.
Myth #2: There are no opportunities to meet boys:
Most women’s colleges actually provide plenty of opportunities for co-ed interaction, by partnering up with other local co-ed colleges for events and activities.
Myth #3: Women’s colleges are “old-fashioned:”
Today’s women’s colleges are far removed from this stereotypical image. These institutions are highly regarded for their academic courses and professional training.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are recognized for making higher education more accessible while helping foster a sense of identity and heritage. There are more than 100 HBCUs located throughout the United States. Here’s what they offer:
• Lower admission standards and costs make HBCUs a more accessible and affordable option.
• A stronger sense of community can be found at a college where African Americans are no longer the minority.
• Faculty mentors offer a “real world” perspective on thriving as a minority professional.
• Networking opportunities through HBCU alumni associations (some welcome grads from all HBCUs) provide exposure to a variety of job opportunities.
For a complete list of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, go to