Board of Contributors: The secret guide to college selection

Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2014
This spring I’ve been accompanying my older daughter, a high school junior, on her college visits. We have trekked all over New England and as far away as Washington, D.C. She is an excellent student (takes after her mom) and will have lots of choice as to where she will apply.

My role in this college shopping process has been to try to keep quiet, and not impose my ideas and theories about what would make a good college match for my daughter.

It hasn’t been easy. You see, I’m a college insider. I’ve spent my entire career working in various roles in higher education. First as a faculty member, then within a dot-com trying to partner with higher education, and finally as an administrator.

So it is great relief that I’m finally able to say all those things that I wanted to say to my daughter about what to look for in selecting a college.

My hope is that this advice on college selection goes somewhat beyond what all of us hear from guidance counselors, college admissions officers, and countless higher ed admissions guide books and websites. All of these sources tell us basically the same thing.

They say every kid is different, and the most important thing is to find a good college match with your kid. They say that it is important to visit as many campuses as possible. They say that while it is a good idea to apply to a range of schools, that included in those applications should be colleges and universities that may seem like a reach, as more selective institutions are more likely to have the resources to both cushion the financial strain of attendance and support individual students once enrolled.

All of this advice is good advice.

To the above college application wisdom I’d add three points.


What do you think is the number one predictor of your son or daughter finishing their degrees and then saying that they had a good college experience?

The key is for your son or daughter to develop a close relationship with at least one faculty member.

More relationships are better, and it is important to develop relationships with nonfaculty educators, such as librarians and administrators, but at least one strong faculty relationship should be everyone’s goal.

This is a relationship where the professor knows and understands the student’s strengths and weaknesses; where the professor knows the student as an individual, and is invested in helping that student fully reach her or his potential.

This faculty member may be the student’s adviser, but does not have to be. They will have taught the student in probably more than one class and will be the mentor that the student goes to for help figuring out where they are going after college. They will write letters of recommendation and help find internships. They will be invested in their success.

During campus tours, it is important that your daughter or son find an opportunity to speak to currently enrolled students and ask whether these students have developed this sort of relationship with at least one professor.

If in talking to lots of students you don’t hear about those few professors who have taken an active and personal interest in them, I’d be immediately worried about the school.

Introductory classes

Every college and university will tout their small student-to-faculty ratio. Every campus tour that I have ever been on has talked about how wonderful the small classes are for learning.

The reality less often mentioned is that almost every single institution of higher learning will teach a certain proportion of their classes as larger enrollment courses. The demand for some courses, particularly introductory courses, is simply too large to have them taught as a small seminar.

Lecture class sizes for introductory courses may vary, from 30 or 40 at smaller liberal arts colleges to hundreds (and sometimes even thousands) of students at larger research institutions, but no institution (that I know about) teaches every single class as a small seminar.

The fact that some courses are taught in lecture format with larger enrollment sizes is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of us can point to lecture-based classes that changed our lives. Classes where the professor was inspiring, and the course material was invigorating.

The problem is that many of us can point to larger introductory and lecture courses that we had in our own higher ed career that were, at best, not very memorable.

It is also at the introductory course level where initial preferences for a particular major tend to get derailed.

Many more students come to college with plans to major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field than will eventually meet this goal. Either through dropping out (the worst outcome) or moving to another major, the gap between initial preferences and eventual majors is large across higher education.

Today, there is a movement on many college campuses to invest resources and energy in improving large enrollment and introductory classes. The combination of new learning technologies and new knowledge about how people learn has opened up options to redesign courses to achieve better learning outcomes. Many courses are moving beyond traditional lecture and high-stakes assessment strategies to new models such as flipped classrooms and the pairing of faculty with online adaptive learning platforms.

Finding out the degree to which the college you are visiting is investing in new ways to teach introductory classes is a worthwhile investment of your time. Better yet, see if you can sit in on an introductory class session to see for yourself how it is taught.

Active learning

Learning, it turns out, is a full-contact sport. We learn best when we have the opportunity to translate what we are learning into action.

On the campuses you visit, you may hear about the opportunities to participate in clubs or internships or extracurricular activities. Evidence suggests that students engaged in activities beyond classroom work meet with higher levels of college success and have higher GPAs. They are also more likely to finish on time.

What I recommend you listen for is the degree to which these extracurricular activities can be integrated into courses. How much of the philosophy of teaching you see is related to active and experiential learning? Are there opportunities to participate in organizations or institutes or research that is related to the classes being taught? Do the classes themselves have components where the students are creating, collaborating and building? Is there evidence that the work done in the courses is visible to the larger community, and that the larger community (both on campus and off campus) is brought into the course learning experience?

Understanding the philosophy that the college brings to its teaching will require lots of conversations and a fair amount of listening to current students and faculty. This is time well spent.

And understanding how the college or university thinks about learning, and then tries to use this philosophy in its teaching, is perhaps the single most important thing to know in selecting where to apply to college.

(Joshua Kim is director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College’s Center for the Advancement of Learning.)