What Makes a College Good?

Published: September 15, 2015 

Category: Blog Written by Calli

How can you know when a college is “good”? In assembling your final college list, look beyond the rankings to the characteristics that make each college right for you. What really determines the quality of a school is not how hard it is to get into but what that college does for its students.

One factor to look at is the retention rate. Are students returning after freshman year and do they finish their degrees? Students are more likely to stay and thrive at a college where they are actively engaged in learning and feel part of a community that supports their intellectual, social and emotional development.

A college that emphasizes teaching rather than research attracts professors who enjoy mentoring undergraduates. It’s a good sign when a school’s mission statement emphasizes a student-centered approach. Universities may tout their Nobel Prize winning professors, but that doesn’t mean much if undergraduates don’t have opportunities to study with them. Current students are a great source of information about professors, and you can ask them about their experiences when you visit a campus.

Advising is another important area where some colleges excel. Students who receive ongoing support as they explore majors and careers make better decisions. Advising doesn’t get much attention in the college search process, but it becomes very important once you’re in college. Ask if each student has an assigned advisor or whether students need to go to advising centers and see whomever is available. Also, how often do students meet with their advisors each semester, and are they required to discuss their course selections before registering for classes? Good advising helps students make smart curriculum choices and enables them to graduate in four years. For students who are planning to go on to law, medical or graduate school, try to meet the advisors who help students with these applications and ask how many students have recently applied and been accepted into these programs.

Starting college is a major life transition, and a strong first year experience is another indicator of quality in a college. While most colleges have a formal orientation program, a comprehensive first year experience that continues beyond the first weeks of school is desirable. These programs often provide peer mentors as well as seminars with professors who serve as academic advisors during freshman year.

Academic learning has more impact when paired with experiential learning. Colleges that have internships and service learning built into the curriculum provide a rich education that connects what you learn in class to the world. Students develop marketable skills that look great on resumes, and these experiences also enhance graduate and professional school applications. While many college websites mention internships, it’s helpful to know where students have done internships and whether they get support from a designated internship advisor or need to find internships on their own.

Some colleges require students to complete a senior capstone project before graduating, and that is an excellent way to synthesize what you’ve learned in your major, get research experience that prepares you for graduate school and connect your major with potential careers.

Tour guides rarely take families inside a college’s career center. But knowing that a school has a strong career services office that provides career exploration, resume and interview preparation, alumni mentor programs and on-campus recruiting, is just as important as seeing a well-equipped campus fitness facility.

Looking for these indicators of quality results is a more satisfying and productive college experience, so populate your list with “good” colleges.

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