Choosing a college? Here's what counts.

  • Article by: LOUIS E. NEWMAN
  • Updated: March 31, 2013 - 5:59 PM

What you should pay attention to during that site visit.

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Dec. 2012: A student researches a religion paper at the library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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At this time of year, thousands of high school seniors are learning where they have been accepted for college. Most will make this very important decision without asking the questions that really matter. Here is some advice from an insider.

Skip the campus tour. The enthusiasm of the tour guide tells you nothing meaningful. Don’t bother attending a class. What you experience in one session can’t be generalized. And don’t worry about the food. There will always be enough, and students will always tell you it could be better.

Here are some questions you should ask:

How available are faculty members? Check out how many office hours they set aside for students each week. Randomly ask students if they can name a faculty member they would call a “mentor.” If college — especially private college — is worth the cost, it is because it gives you an opportunity to engage with great teachers.

How good is the advising system, especially for first-year students? Without a good advising system, the chances of your floundering are greater and the likelihood of recovering when you do are slimmer.

How satisfied are students and alumni with the quality of the education they have received? Ask to see survey data from current students, especially the NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement). Ask for results of the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment), which measures students’ analytical reasoning. Many schools now administer this to both freshmen and seniors to see how much their scores improve. Find out what percentage of alumni make annual contributions to the college — it’s one indication of their satisfaction.

How long does it typically take to get an appointment at the campus health clinic for a routine problem? How close is a major hospital? You will probably get sick at some point, and the answer to these questions will matter — a lot.

How strong is the sense of collegiality among faculty, and how deeply committed are they to the institution’s values and goals? Ask to see results of the HERI (Higher Educational Research Institute) survey of faculty satisfaction and engagement. If your professors have a sense of shared purpose and believe their work is valued, they will bring that positive energy into their interactions with you.

How much support does the college provide for faculty development? What sorts of incentives does the college provide faculty both to pursue their research and to develop new courses (or revise tired ones)?

All professors need opportunities to collaborate and to hone their pedagogical skills. They also need mentoring from more established colleagues and support to attend conferences, so they can continue to grow intellectually. If the faculty feel supported, you will benefit in ways that you couldn’t possibly discover just by reading the college’s course catalog or publicity materials.

When you visit the campus, take time to check out the bulletin boards and read the college paper — there is no quicker way to gauge the atmosphere on a campus. Try standing in a well-trafficked place looking lost and see how long it takes before someone offers to help. Finally, count the number of students you see wearing items of clothing with the college’s name emblazoned on them — it’s one measure, albeit a rough one, of school spirit.

Most of us long ago learned not to buy anything we really care about based on the hype. This is one time when doing your homework really matters.

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Louis E. Newman is the director of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching and John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

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