Choosing the Perfect College

Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College
Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College. Eric Behrens / Flickr

We've all seen the lists by U.S. News & World Report, Petersons, Kiplinger, Forbes, and other companies in the business of ranking colleges. We have our own picks for the best collegesuniversitiespublic universitiesbusiness schools, and engineering schools. These rankings all have a certain value—they tend to represent schools that have strong reputations, lots of resources, high graduation rates, good value, and other notable features.

That said, no national ranking can tell you which college or university is the best match for you. Your interests, personality, talents, and career goals make any ranking have limited usefulness.

This article covers 15 features you should consider when choosing a college or university. The first is the attractiveness of the school itself. Appearances, of course, are superficial, but you want to go to a school that you are proud to attend. If your classes are held in a dilapidated building that smells like dead fish, the physical problems with the school could very well be a sign of more deep-rooted problems. A healthy school has the resources to maintain its facilities.

High Graduation Rate

There are colleges that have four-year graduation rates in the single digits. A 30% rate isn't at all unusual, especially among regional public universities.

If you are applying to colleges, presumably your goal is to get a college degree. Some schools are much more successful at graduating students than others. If the majority of students at a college don't graduate in four years (or don't graduate ever), then the majority of students are spending a lot of money for a goal that will evade them.

When you are calculating the cost of a college degree, you should take graduation rates into account. If most students take five or six years to graduate, you shouldn't budget for four years of tuition. If most students don't actually graduate, you shouldn't plan on an increased earning potential because of your college degree.

That said, make sure you put graduation rates into context. There are often good reasons why some schools have higher graduation rates than others:

  • The most selective colleges enroll students who are extremely well prepared for college-level work. These students are likely to succeed and, in the process, boost the college's four-year graduation rate. College's that admit students with weaker college preparation do not have this benefit.
  • Professional programs in fields such as engineering, nursing and education are more likely to take five years than many other fields in the humanities, sciences and social sciences.
  • Many state universities have a large percentage of commuting students, working students, and students with families. The demands on these students often make graduating in four years difficult.
  • Colleges with open admissions or non-selective admissions will often have low graduation rates. These schools provide an important role by making college accessible to all. At the same time, they will often matriculate students who are entirely unprepared for the demands of college academics.

Low Student / Faculty Ratio

The student/faculty ratio is an important figure to consider when looking at colleges, but it is also a piece of data that is easy to misinterpret. The California Institute of Technology, for example, has a 3 to 1 student/faculty ratio. This does not mean, however, that students can expect an average class size of 3. It also doesn't mean that your professors will be more interested in undergraduates than graduate students.

Most of the country's most prestigious colleges and universities have low student/faculty ratios. However, they are also schools where a high research and publication expectation is placed on the faculty. As a result, the faculty tends to teach fewer courses than at schools where research is valued less and teaching is valued more. You are likely to find that a prestigious college like Williams with a 7 to 1 student/faculty ratio has class sizes that aren't much different from a place like Siena College with a 14 to 1 ratio.

At a well-regarded research university, many of the faculty members spend considerable time not just on their own research, but also supervising graduate research. This gives them less time to devote to undergraduates than the faculty at an institution with primarily undergraduate enrollment.

While you should interpret the student/faculty ratio carefully, the ratio still says a lot about a school. The lower the ratio, the more likely it is that your professors will be able to give you personal attention. When you find a ratio over 20 / 1, you'll often discover that classes are big, the faculty is overworked, and your opportunities for one-on-one interaction with your professors are greatly diminished. I consider a healthy ratio to be 15 to 1 or lower, although some universities deliver excellent instruction with a higher ratio.

Note that the ratio is typically calculated using full-time faculty or their equivalent (so in many calculations, three 1/3-time employees would count as a single full-time faculty member). Different schools will calculate the number somewhat differently. For example, does the university count graduate student instructors? Does the school count faculty who spend all their time on research rather than undergraduate teaching? In other words, the student/faculty ratio is not a precise or consistent science.

A related and more meaningful piece of data is the average class size. This is not a number that all colleges report, but you should feel free to ask about class size when visiting campus or talking with an admissions officer. Does the college have large freshman lecture classes? How big are upper-level seminars? How many students are in a lab? You can often learn a lot about class size by looking at the course catalog. What are the maximum enrollments in different types of classes?

Good Financial Aid

It doesn't matter how great a college is if you can't pay for it. You won't know exactly what a school will cost until you receive your financial aid package. However, when you're researching colleges you can easily find out what percentage of students receive grant aid as well as what the average amount of grant aid is.

Look at both public and private colleges as you compare grant aid. Private colleges with healthy endowments are much more able to offer significant grant aid than the majority of public universities. Once grant aid is factored in, the price difference between publics and privates shrinks considerably.

You should also look at the average amount of loans the students take out to pay for college. Keep in mind that loans can burden you for over a decade after you graduate. While loans may help you pay your tuition bill, they can make it harder for you to pay a mortgage after you graduate.

The financial aid officers at a college should be working to meet you at a reasonable financial midway point -- you should make some sacrifices to pay for your education, but the college should help out considerably as well, assuming you qualify for aid. As you shop around for the ideal college, look for schools where the average grant aid is more than the average amount loan aid. For private colleges, the grant aid should be considerably more than loan amounts. At public colleges, the numbers might be similar.

The hundreds of college profiles on present quick loan and grant information. More details can be found on individual college websites.

Internships and Research Opportunities

When senior year of college rolls around and you start applying for jobs, nothing helps more than having some hands-on, practical experiences listed on your resume. As you choose the colleges to which you'll apply, look for schools that have robust programs for experiential learning. Does the college support students to assist professors with their research? Does the college have funds to support independent undergraduate research? Has the college fostered relationships with companies and organizations to help students get meaningful summer internships? Does the college have a strong alumni network to help students get summer work in their fields of study?

Realize that internships and research opportunities should not be limited to engineering and the sciences. Faculty in the humanities and arts are also likely to need research or studio assistants, so it's worth asking the admissions officers about experiential learning opportunities no matter what major you are likely to pursue.

Travel Opportunities for Students

Let's face it—the world's countries are remarkably interconnected and interdependent. A good education needs to get us thinking beyond our immediate surroundings, and employers often look for applicants who are worldly, not provincial. As you search for the perfect college, find out about travel opportunities for students and programs with schools located in the best places to study abroad. Travel does need to be a semester- or year-long study abroad experience. Some courses will have shorter trips scheduled during breaks.

Some questions to ponder as you look at different colleges and universities:

  • How many study abroad options does the college offer? Do you have the opportunity to travel almost anywhere on the globe, or are the options limited? A place like Arcadia University has made a name for itself through its excellent and expansive study-abroad programs, but you'll find that most reputable colleges have many options for students.
  • How is study abroad funded? Will you still get financial aid if you are studying abroad? Will a semester abroad cost much more than staying at the home campus?
  • Do many classes have travel components? Here at Alfred University, for example, we have an international business course that travels to Germany and an Equestrian course that travels to Ireland.
  • Does the college have branch campuses in other countries? A branch campus can have benefits over other types of study abroad—course credits transfer easily, and financial aid and billing are handled internally. Some branch campuses have been remarkably successful, such as the Rome campus of the University of Dallas where about 80% of students study.
  • How many students study abroad? It's often easy to tell if a college has created a campus culture that truly values travel by seeing what percentage of students study abroad.
  • Do credits earned abroad transfer easily? Make sure a semester abroad isn't going to make it more difficult to graduate on time. If course credits earned abroad don't transfer back to the home institution, a study abroad experience can end up having huge hidden costs.

Engaging Curriculum

Laura Reyome's drawing of a zombie class may seem far-fetched, but in truth you'll find professors teaching about zombies at the University of Baltimore, University of Alabama Birmingham, Alfred University and many other campuses. When approached seriously, zombies tell us a lot about contemporary culture, and their representations in film and fiction have roots in antiquity and slavery.

A college curriculum, however, doesn't need to be trendy or gimmicky to be engaging. As you look at colleges, be sure to spend time exploring the course catalog. Are there courses offered that get you excited? Do the core courses make sense?--that is, does the college present a clear rationale for its general education program? Does the college have a strong first-year curriculum to help you make the transition to college-level coursework? Does the curriculum leave room for taking elective courses?

If you have a potential major in mind, look at the requirements for the major. Do the courses actually cover the subject areas that you want to study? You don't want to go to a college for accounting only to discover that the school specializes almost entirely in marketing.

Clubs and Activities to Match Your Interests

Most colleges flaunt the number of student groups and activities they offer. The number, however, isn't nearly as important as the nature of those activities. Before choosing a college, make sure the school has your extracurricular interests covered.

If your favorite activity is equestrian (or unicorn riding), look at colleges that have their own fields and stables. If you love playing football but aren't quite NFL material, you might want to look at colleges that compete at the Division III level. If debate is your thing, make sure the colleges you consider actually have a debate team.

Nearly all four-year residential colleges have wide-ranging options for clubs and activities, but different campuses do have very different personalities. You'll find schools that place a lot of emphasis on the performing arts, outdoor activities, intramural sports, volunteerism, or Greek life. Find schools that complement your interests. While the curriculum may be the most important feature of a college, you'll be miserable if you don't have a stimulating life outside of academics.

Good Health and Wellness Facilities

Unfortunately, those rumors you've heard about the "freshman 15" are often true. Many students when confronted with unlimited french fries, pizza, and soda make bad eating decisions and put on the pounds.

It's also true that when thousands of students from all over the world come together in small classrooms and residence halls, they share lots of germs. A college campus is much like a petri dish—colds, flu, stomach bugs, strep throat, and STDs tend to spread across campuses quickly.

While you'll find germs and fattening foods on nearly every campus, you should ask some questions about the college's health and wellness facilities and programs:

  • Do the dining halls always have healthy options? Are baked foods (rather than fried) and a salad bar always available? Are fresh fruits and vegetables standard offerings?
  • What kinds of exercise facilities are there? Do non-athletes have easy access to exercise equipment, a track, and a swimming pool? Does the campus have hiking trails?
  • Is there a health center on campus where you can go for basic services such as immunizations and the treatment of common ailments?
  • Does the college have a counseling center to support students struggling with anxiety, depression, or other psychological issues?
  • Does the college have programs in place to teach students about responsible drinking and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases?

Many of these issues may not be high on your list of priorities as you narrow down your college options. However, students who are healthy in mind and body are much more likely to succeed in college than those who aren't.

Campus Safety

Most colleges are extremely safe, and even urban campuses tend to be safer than the surrounding neighborhoods. At the same time, some colleges have lower crime rates than others. Students can be tempting targets for petty thieves, and bicycle and car theft are not unusual on many campuses, especially in cities. Also, when a lot of young adults live together and party together, acquaintance rape can be more common than we would wish.

In general, the campuses with the most reported crimes are in urban environments. But some colleges handle safety more effectively than others. As you research different colleges, ask about campus crime. Are there many incidents? Does the college have its own police force? Does the school have an escort and ride service for evenings and weekends? Are campus emergency call boxes located throughout the college?

To learn about the reported crime statistics for a specific campus, visit The Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool created by the U.S. Department of Education.

Good Academic Support Services

At times during your college career, you are likely to struggle with the material you are learning. So as you're choosing the schools to which you'll apply, look into each college's academic support services. Does the college have a writing center? Can you get an individual tutor for a class? Are the faculty members required to hold weekly office hours? Is there a learning lab? Do first-year classes have upper-class mentors affiliated with them? Do most classes have review and study sessions before major exams? In other words, try to find out how readily available help is should you need it.

Realize that all colleges need to comply with Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Qualifying students must be offered reasonable accommodations such as extended time on exams, separate testing locations, and whatever else may be needed to help a student perform up to his or her potential. However, some colleges are better than others at delivering services under Section 504. Ask how many employees work for support services and how many students they serve.

Strong Career Services

Most students go to college with the hope of either getting into a good graduate program or landing an appealing job upon graduation. As you conduct your college search, look into each school's career services. What help and guidance does the school provide as you apply for jobs, internships and graduate study? Some questions you should consider:

  • Does the college bring job fairs and graduate school fairs to campus?
  • What is the college's job placement rate?
  • What percentage of students go on to graduate school, and what programs are accepting them?
  • Does the college have a program for helping students find meaningful summer work?
  • Does the college help students write and develop their resumes?
  • Does the college conduct mock interviews to help students prepare for the real thing?
  • Does the college have an involved alumni base to help students get leads on jobs?
  • Does the college have resources to help students prepare for graduate entrance exams such as the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT?
  • Does the college have services for providing feedback on graduate school applications and personal statements?
  • Does the college provide testing such as the Briggs Myers assessment to help students find suitable career paths?

Good Computing Infrastructure

Most colleges have pretty good computing resources, but some schools are better than others. Whether for academic work or personal enjoyment, you'll want your college to have the resources and bandwidth that will meet your needs.

Consider these questions as you research colleges:

  • How many public computing labs are available for students, and what are their hours?
  • Do the labs have all the specialized software needed to support academic work?
  • What are the campus printing facilities like, and what is the charge for printing (if any)
  • Are there any dead spots in the campus wireless network? Will your laptop or Blackberry work out on the campus green as well as in the residence halls?
  • Are most classes taught in "smart classrooms"? Are the professors taking advantage of emerging technologies?
  • Are classes supported by course management software, online course delivery systems, podcasts, or other technologies?
  • Are laptops, projectors, cameras, and other equipment available for students to borrow?
  • Is the campus bandwidth adequate? Does the system ever bog down at peak times?
  • Does the college provide training for essential software such as PowerPoint, Excel, and PhotoShop?
  • Does the college have a "port-per-pillow" -- a hard-wired ethernet connection for every residence hall student?

Leadership Opportunities

When you are applying for jobs or graduate programs, you'll want to be able to demonstrate strong leadership skills. Thus, it logically follows that you want to choose a college that will provide opportunities for you to develop leadership skills.

Leadership is a broad concept that can take many forms, but consider these questions as you apply to colleges:

  • Does the college have a leadership certificate program or leadership track?
  • Does the college offer public speaking workshops or classes?
  • How easy or difficult is it to become an officer of a student club or activity?
  • Does the school have a leadership center?
  • Are there opportunities for upper-class students to become tutors, peer mentors, or peer leaders for introductory-level classes?
  • What opportunities are there to get involved with student governance?
  • Do undergraduates serve as RAs (Residential Advisors)?
  • Can undergraduates start new clubs or activities on campus? What is the procedure?
  • Does the college offer courses to teach leadership skills?

Strong Alumni Network

When you enroll at a college, you immediately link yourself to every person who ever attended that college. A school's alumni network can be a powerful tool for providing mentoring, professional guidance and employment opportunities. When you're looking at colleges, try to find out how involved the school's alumni are.

Does the campus career center take advantage of the alumni network for internships and job opportunities? Do the alumni volunteer their expertise to help guide students interested in similar professions? And who are the alumni?—does the college have influential people in important positions around the world?

Finally, an active alumni network says something positive about a college. If the alumni care enough about their alma mater to continue donating their time and money long after graduation, they must have had a positive college experience.