How to Choose a College When You Can't Visit

Roof top view of Cornell University campus with Barnes Hall and Sage Hall in the background.

Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

During the COVID-19 pandemic, high school juniors and seniors are facing a difficult situation: how do you choose a college when you can't visit? Campus tours and overnight visits have always been essential parts of the college selection process.

While no virtual experience can fully replace an actual campus visit, you can get a wealth of information online. If you evaluate a school from multiple angles—through virtual tours, online info sessions, student reviews, rankings, financial and academic data—you'll be able to identify schools that are a good match for your educational goals, career aspirations, and personality.

01
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Tour Campus Virtually

Even before COVID-19, many colleges and universities had created virtual tours for students who are unable to visit in person. With the current health crisis, nearly all schools are scrambling to make sure prospective students can explore campus virtually. To tour campus without leaving your home, check out some of these options:

Keep in mind that a school's official virtual tour is not your only option for seeing the sights and learning more about a school. YouTube is home to thousands of college video tours—both professional and amateur—that can give you perspectives that are independent of the school's official talking points.

02
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Attend Virtual Information Sessions

Colleges place a high priority on getting prospective students to visit their campus. Students who visit in person are more likely to apply, deposit, and enroll than students who don't. A significant piece of any campus visit has always been the information session—typically a one-hour session run by admissions personnel (and perhaps a few students) during which the school can show off its best features and answer attendees' questions.

Because of COVID-19, most colleges and universities in the country have moved information sessions online using platforms like Zoom to allow for attendee Q&A. An added bonus is that when travel is removed from the equation, virtual information sessions are much easier for prospective students to schedule, attend, and afford than in-person meetings. To find and schedule virtual information sessions, you'll need to go to the admissions web pages of individual schools.

03
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Read Student Reviews

When evaluating colleges, you don't want to rely entirely on the college sales pitch. The admissions staff members who run information sessions and conduct virtual tours have a clear agenda: make their school look good so that you apply. You can certainly learn a lot from promotional events and materials, but you'll also want to get the unfiltered student perspective. What do the students who actually attend the college think about their experience?

The student perspective is also important for trying to assess the "fit" of a school from a distance. A school may have a beautiful campus, amazing sports facilities, and highly-ranked academics, but the "fit" can still be entirely wrong if the atmosphere is too liberal or conservative for your taste, the students tend to have a sense of entitlement, or the party culture clashes with your idea of having fun.

Fortunately, there are many excellent resources for getting the student perspective on everything including academics, the social life, the dorms, and campus food.

  • UNIGO: Type in a school name, and immediately get star ratings for housing, food, facilities, activities, academics, and more. You'll also find plenty of written reviews from current and former students. The site has over 650,000 reviews.
  • NICHE: Another extensive information site that gives letter grades for areas such as academics, diversity, athletics, and the party scene. Scores are based on both empirical data and millions of student reviews.
  • Guidebooks: Many guidebooks focus on data (SAT scores, acceptance rate, financial aid, etc), but a few are much more centered on the student experience. The Fiske Guide to Colleges incorporates quotes from real students and does a good job capturing the personality of a school. The Princeton Review's The Best 385 Colleges is also a useful resource that combines student reviews and surveys with more objective data.
04
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Assess Financial Aid

With financial aid, you'll want to find answers to a few questions:

  • Does the school meet 100% of your demonstrated need as determined by the FAFSA or CSS Profile? College will almost always be expensive, but steer clear of schools that ask you to pay more than is reasonable.
  • Does the school offer merit aid in addition to grant aid? The nation's most prestigious colleges and universities tend to award need-based aid only since all students are outstanding in many ways. At slightly less selective schools, strong students may find excellent merit scholarship opportunities.
  • What is the ratio of grant aid to loan aid? Some of the nation's wealthier schools have removed all loans from financial aid packages and replaced them with grants. In general, you'll want to make sure you won't be graduating with insurmountable debt.

To get answers to these questions, be sure to visit each school's financial aid website. Another excellent resource is the College Board's BigFuture website. Type in a school's name, and then click on the "Paying" link to learn about typical aid, scholarships, loans, and debt.

05
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Consider the Endowment

Few prospective college students think about the financial health of the schools they are considering, but they should. The endowment—money donated to a college that provides income for the institution's operations—affects everything including scholarships, construction projects, visiting speakers, and student research opportunities. A bigger endowment means the university has more money to spend on your college experience.

A small endowment, especially at private colleges and universities, typically means that you'll have fewer perks—both financial and experiential—during your undergraduate education. When a financial crisis hits such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is schools with small endowments that are most likely to close down. In recent years, Antioch College, Newbury College, Mount Ida College, Marygrove College, and several other small schools have closed for financial reasons. Many financial experts expect the rate of closures to accelerate as the current crisis ravages college enrollments and budgets.

Colleges make their endowment figures public, but you are unlikely to find the information on the admissions website or through an information session. A simple Google search—"college name endowment"—will almost always turn up the number.

Keep in mind that the actual dollar amount isn't as important as the number of endowment dollars per student, for the latter figure tells you how much money is backing your own educational experience. Also keep in mind that endowment numbers matter much more for private than public institutions. The financial health of a state university is partly grounded in the endowment, but even more important is the state budgeting process that allocates funds to higher education.

College Endowment Examples
School Endowment Endowment $ per Student
Princeton University $26.1 billion $3.1 million
Amherst College $2.4 billion $1.3 million
Harvard University $40 billion $1.3 million
University of Southern California $5.7 billion $120,482
Rhodes College $359 million $176,326
Baylor University $1.3 billion $75,506
Caldwell College $3.4 million $1,553

Depending on market performance, colleges typically spend about 5% of their endowments annually. A small endowment makes a school entirely tuition dependent, and a decline in enrollment can very quickly result in an existential fiscal crisis.

06
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Pay Attention to Class Size and Student/Faculty Ratio

While many factors contribute to your academic experience in college, class size and the student-to-faculty ratio are useful measures for figuring out how much personal attention you're likely to receive and how likely it is that you'll be able to work closely with a faculty member through research or an independent study,

The student-to-faculty ratio is an easy number to find, for all schools report that data to the Department of Education. If you go to the College Navigator website and type in a school's name, you'll find the ratio right in the page header. It's worth drilling down a little further and clicking on the "General Information" tab to see the number of full-time and part-time faculty members. A low student/faculty ratio isn't much use if the majority of instructors are part-time adjuncts who are underpaid, overworked, and rarely on campus.

Class size is not a required reporting metric for colleges, so the data can be more difficult to find. Typically you'll want to look on a school's admissions website where you can search for a "fast facts" or "at a glance" page. Realize that the numbers tend to be an average, so even if the average class size is 18, you may still have a first-year lecture class with over 100 students.

07
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Evaluate the Curriculum

If you know what you might want to study in college, you'll obviously want to make sure the schools you're considering are strong in that field. If you don't have a particular major in mind, make sure you are looking at schools with a broad curriculum where it is easy to shop around and try out different subject areas.

Individual college websites, of course, always have an "academics" area that lists all majors and minors, and you'll be able to drill down to get information about specific majors. You'll often be able to see what classes are required, who the faculty members are, and what undergraduate opportunities exist, such as research practicums, travel options, and thesis work.

To see what majors are thriving at a specific college, you can use the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard website. You can search for a school and then click on the "Fields of Study" tab. There you'll find a ranking of the most popular majors as well as a list of all fields of study.

To see what the top schools are for a given major, you'll find that most field-specific rankings focus on graduate school more than undergraduate studies. That said, Niche does have rankings of best schools by major, although the results seem to rely very heavily on a school's selectivity. You'll also find that rankings are easier to find for professional and technical fields such as computer science, pre-med, nursing, and engineering.

One other useful tool for evaluating a specific department at a university is RateMyProfessor. You'll want to use the site with some skepticism, for disgruntled students who receive low grades can use it to abuse their professors, but you often can get a general picture of how much students enjoy taking classes with their professors.

08
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Pay Attention to Co-Curricular and Extracurricular Opportunities

College is about much more than classes and earning a degree. Be sure to visit college websites to look over the clubs, student organizations, athletic teams, musical ensembles, and other opportunities for staying involved outside of the classroom. If you love playing an instrument but aren't that serious about it, make sure the college band or orchestra is open to everyone. If you want to keep playing soccer in college, find out what it takes to join the varsity team, or what options there are for playing at the club or intramural level.

Also look into opportunities for internships, conducting research with professors, studying abroad, tutoring, and other experiences that will help you gain valuable hands-on experience and strengthen your skills for your future career.

09
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Look at the School's Outcomes

The end goal of college, of course, is to give you the knowledge and skills you'll need to succeed at whatever you do later in life. Some colleges are better at preparing students for the future than others, although measuring this dimension of a school can be challenging.

PayScale provides salary data for U.S. colleges and universities, so you'll be able to see median early-career and mid-career pay. Keep in mind that these numbers tend to be highest for STEM fields, so it should come as little surprise that Harvey Mudd College and MIT top the list.

Sample PayScale Data
School Early-Career Pay Mid-Career Pay % STEM Degree
MIT $86,300 $155,200 69%
Yale $70,300 $138,300 22%
Santa Clara University $69,900 $134,700 29%
Villanova University $65,100 $119,500 23%
Rutgers University $59,800 $111,000 29%

You'll also want to consider a school's four- and six-year graduation rates. College is a huge investment of time and money, so you want to make sure your college does a good job graduating students on time. Not surprisingly, the most selective schools tend to do best on this front since they are enrolling students with strong college preparation. To find this information, go to the Department of Education's College Navigator, type in a school name, and then click on the "Retention and Graduation Rates" tab.

Sample Graduation Rate Data
School 4-Year Graduation Rate 6-Year Graduation Rate
Columbia University 87% 96%
Dickinson College 81% 84%
Penn State 66% 85%
UC Irvine 65% 83%
University of Notre Dame 91% 97%
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics