This is a difficult question to answer. My 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. I used to be the person in the admissions office in charge of providing the rankings agencies with their data; because of that experience, I have distrust for rankings in general. I think 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 (among many, many others) have each been charged with cheating their rankings by cooking their books.
So where does this leave you?
Well, I have a freshman and junior in college now and a freshman in high school. Here are a few ideas that I used to help them look at schools and programs.
First, I look at the faculty and course offerings. Who are they? What courses do they teach? I look through 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 in your faculty, 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 you’re 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 leave campus? Are the faculty actually members of that department, or are they borrowed from another department? These are the details I sift through.
Next, I 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 you are considering has ABET accreditation. Most of the reputable engineering schools easily make this hurdle, but it’s good to double-check. Second, make sure that the ABET approved degree that you will receive is in your 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 you are considering has accreditation. Second, check that the specific interest your student has is well represented at that school. My son looked at marketing and finance programs during his college search. We looked at the program for University of Connecticut and discovered that they had real strengths in health care management and real estate, but the departments he was interested in were not up to his expectations. This was a first-step in crossing schools off our list.
Next, go there. You would never buy a car you’ve never test driven (or maybe I’m old-fashioned), so don’t plan a major at a college if you have never talked to faculty or students from that program. Go kick the tires. Being an English major at Carnegie Mellon is very different from being a Chemical Engineering major at Carnegie Mellon. If you want to know what the expectations are and the experience is like, go there and ask. Of course, you can save yourself time and money and do this after you’ve been admitted! Just make sure you get a first-hand account of the student experience before committing.