Once a college sends out their decisions, admissions officers and other so-called “enrollment managers” do not rest. Every day, they ask: How many students have deposited? In other words, how many of the admitted have committed to joining us in the fall? How many beds have we filled? How much tuition revenue can we count on?
As the numbers increase, everyone starts to breathe more easily. If the numbers fall short, wait lists become crucial so that the college can make their numbers. If the numbers fall very short, admissions managers start worrying about their jobs, finance folks have to go back to the drawing board, departments are required to slash their budgets, adjuncts are not rehired, and everybody gets grumpy and worried. It’s a cruel process for sure.
But it’s even crueler for the families who are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives. They are rushing around from one campus to another, if they can afford it, assessing the potential future homes for the “rising freshmen,” as we call them, appealing to financial aid offices for more funding, and scouring the websites for information that will make their decision clearer.
But there are a number of things that parents and kids can pay attention to that will make their plight a bit easier. And even if you have already decided, these are crucial things to keep in mind.
- Ignore the opinions of your friends, relatives, and others who keep asking you where you are going to go. Unless they work on the campus you are considering, most of their knowledge won’t pertain to you, and, as we all know, colleges’ reputations are mostly irrelevant for your future happiness. Listen to your gut. Follow your intuition. You get the gist.
- Have the money conversation. What is this going to cost for four years, and how are you collectively planning to pay for it? How much debt will both the parents and the child have to go into to complete the degree? Do you need to appeal for more financial aid? Is the debt worth it, or do you want to wait and take out those loans for graduate school rather than undergrad? What does it cost to go back and forth on breaks and between semesters? Do you need a car? Can you have one as a first-year? Don’t forget automobile and renter’s insurance, the cost of meals not included in a meal plan, and the variation in housing costs offered both on the campus and in the surrounding area.
- What is the area around the college like? What does the town or city have to offer? Are there places to work, to do internships, to have a good, cheap meal? What are the politics of the area? The demographics? Check out the Cleary crime statistics and the local police stats so you know how safe the campus is. Don’t assume you know.
- Look at the academic offerings again. Do they have the majors, concentrations, programs, and minors that interest you? Countless students tell freshman advisers that they want to study something that is not offered at the school. Are there majors and minors you can’t define? Look at those web pages to learn what they are. Does the website tell you where alumni have ended up? What institutes does the college have? These are places where you can do research or have other experiential opportunities.
- How many students reside on campus vs. off? And what are the main activities there? How big are fraternities, sororities, eating clubs, final clubs, etc.? Read the student newspaper for information on clubs and organizations that are active. (Many of the organizations listed on college websites are defunct.) What opportunities for non-academic social engagement are there? Do they include things you are passionate about?
- What are the sports and recreational facilities like? College gyms are notoriously understaffed, underequipped, and overcrowded. Something to consider if this is important to you.
- What is the advising and academic support system like? College advising is totally different from high school advising. Who will your initial advisors be? Are they professional advisers who dedicates their lives to helping college students or are they faculty members who are being pulled in a million other directions on a daily basis? (Sorry for revealing my bias here.) Advisors must above all be accessible, approachable, knowledgeable, and caring. Just for starters, see how easy it is to make an appointment and how long they have been advising. How do they match incoming students with advisers? How long do you get to work with your first adviser? Are you switched to someone else after the first year? Every year?
- Is there tutoring? By whom? Where? How accessible are these “scaffolding” services? Are they expensive? How easy is it to get an appointment? What about medical and psychological services? And disability services, if you need that? What documentation do you need to access those? What do they cost?
- And what about career services? They are notoriously understaffed, too. How do you make an appointment? How much of the work they do is in workshop format? How easy is it to get a one-on-one appointment with a skilled career services professional for more than 15 minutes? How do you access alumni? Is there an active alumni database? Are there activities sponsored by career development offices that enable you to interact with alumni by industry? How many job fairs are there per year? How many of their recent alumni were employed, where, and how much money were they making? Does the career education office service current students or are you able to take advantage of those offerings lifelong?
- Is there a parent and family office? How do they engage with families? How many people are assigned to support family involvement?
I’m not saying that any one of these would be a show stopper. But I know from talking to thousands of new college students and their parents that misaligned expectations and false assumptions lead to lots of disappointed parents and kids. It’s heartbreaking to watch as someone who can’t wait to welcome the newest members of our community to campus.