While the focus in your college search is on finding and getting into colleges that represent good "fits" for you, now is also a good time to begin assessing the manner in which you will be supported in achieving your educational goals. After all, what better way to gauge the extent to which you will be valued in a given academic environment than to determine that place's likely investment in your success? As you visit college campuses, then, be prepared to ask following questions.
• "What is your graduation rate?" In other words, "how many of your students finish what they start?" This is important because you want reasonable assurance that, given the opportunity, you will graduate. Not everyone will and a college's graduation rate is a good indication of its support of students as they navigate the ups and downs of the college experience.
• "What is your graduation rate in four years?" In asking this question, you make sure you are talking the same language with the person you are questioning—and college personnel might not be quick to make the distinction. Whereas you might have four years in mind when you ask the question, the answer you get might reflect a six-year reality. You want an accurate measure of your likely investment and each year beyond four that it takes to graduate adds up quickly.
[Explore the U.S. News guide to college tours.]
• "What is your first-to-second year retention rate?" If students have difficulty academically, it is most likely to manifest itself in the first year of college. Many colleges invest in transitional programs (first-year seminars, special housing units, advising programs) that help students acclimate to the new academic, social and personal pressures they are bound to experience. A high retention rate (90 percent and higher) is a good indication that such programs are in place.
• "What are the opportunities for independent study and internships?" A big part of your success upon graduation will be owing to the opportunities you have as an undergraduate to test the information to which you are exposed. Look for evidence that a college will give you the opportunity to develop your skills of inquiry and critical analysis.
[Consider more questions to ask on a college visit.]
• "Who will advise me in course selections? How about for graduate school applications?" One of the reasons students might find themselves on the five or six-year "plan" is that they fail to make appropriate course selections along the way. Similarly, they are left to their own devices in applying to graduate schools or professional degree programs. Good advising helps reduce the randomness that is often seen in course selections and lends insight/direction to post-graduate planning.
• "In my program of interest, what are the outcomes for graduates over the last five years?" You know the college offers the major you want, but what happens to the students who have completed its requirements? What is the acceptance rate into graduate schools and Ph.D. programs? Where have graduates been hired? What is their average salary?
• "What post-graduate networking opportunities are available to your students?" When it is time to graduate, will you be on your own in finding employment or will you be able to take advantage of on-campus, off-campus and online networking? Many colleges provide career counseling, access to job fairs and mentoring opportunities with alumni. You still need to take advantage of them, but it is good to know that the opportunities will be available to you.
As you ask these questions, don't settle for conversational answers. Instead, insist on seeing organizational charts, advising plans, event calendars, and outcome data. Although it might not be present in recruitment materials, this information is available. Considering what is at stake, you have every right to see it.
Finally, create a spreadsheet on which you can track the information you receive for each of the colleges that are of interest to you. Then, draw your own conclusions about which will support you most effectively in reaching your goals.