College is not just about the facts and figures of an institution or the brand name. It is also about the community and campus life. The two main reasons students drop out of college are either due to running out of money or feeling like they don't fit in. Experts are even reevaluating the value of college rankings. Bard College and Colorado College, for instance, have announced that they will no longer participate in the U.S. News & World Report’s undergraduate rankings. With this in mind, it's more about finding the "right fit" than finding the "best school." But how do we effectively communicate that to students and, more importantly, to parents?
Visiting college campuses is an integral part of the college search process, whether students are just building their college list or heading off on the "Victory" tour. The college campus will be their new home with new neighbors for the next four years. It’s the community they will live, learn, and grow with and hopefully foster many lifelong friendships and mentors.
Thanks to Google, there is no shortage of available resources to help guide parents and their children through the college selection process. Yet, despite the abundance of data available, resources that give students the "inside scoop" on what it's really like to attend a college from a current student's perspective are rare. Most students and parents can get a grasp of academic and financial fit with the help of educational consultants and financial advisors. However, social fit, the third aspect, is more elusive for students to get a really good handle on from their peers.
What students want and crave is information, tips, and advice from their peers about campus life, location, and career services. They want to explore a college through the lens of a current student. So, how do students research finding a college that is the right fit?
Campus life: What is it really like to live, learn and grow on campus?
Students need to ask themselves: What do they want from their college experience? The majority of students' time will NOT be spent in a classroom. So, is this community one where a student will thrive not only in the classroom but outside the classroom as well? Connecting with the current students and asking questions about everyday life will help students further refine their college list.
College students we surveyed shared seven categories and common questions they wish they had asked when analyzing campus life:
- Food - How good is the food in the dining hall? Do upperclassmen eat in the dining hall after freshman year or is it mostly freshmen and athletes? What are the other dining options available, and what are the associated costs? Fit Body, Fit Mind.
- Social life - Does the social life revolve around Greek life? If not, what do students do for fun? Are there on-campus trivia nights, music productions, or club-sponsored activities during the week? What is the nightlife like in town, or do students mostly party on campus?
- School spirit - Do students actually fill the bleachers and seats at athletic and art events? School spirit is more about the student body coming together to show solidarity, a sense of belonging, and identity. Besides homecoming and family weekend, what other events do students participate in to show their school spirit? For athletic events at the Big Ten schools, a common question from students is, “Can I afford the $240+ student season passes for football?” Is there a lottery system option for students?
- Campus housing - What are the benefits of on-campus vs. off-campus housing? How far are the freshman dorms from the campus center or the Engineering campus, for example? At some schools, the housing selection process for the following year starts in October. Imagine finishing your first month as a freshman only to start the roommate selection and housing process again for sophomore year? Knowing ahead of time the timeline for off-campus housing registration is helpful.
- Safety - Besides the campus police and blue light system, do students feel safe walking home late from the library? Are there other alternatives like safe rides or safety escort services available for students, and do students use them?
- Clubs and Activities - What clubs and activities are particularly fun, and how easy is it to apply to them? Is the time commitment overwhelming or manageable? At some universities, it is as competitive getting into clubs as it is getting into the school!
- Academics - How easy is it to register for classes? What is the typical workload for specific majors? If I need help, what support systems are available for students, and what do students really use? Is the writing lab helpful, or do I need to look for tutors? Are the professors accessible, and are the office hours worth attending?
Connecting with current students is a worthwhile investment. Reaching out to friends, family, high school guidance counselors, former teachers and coaches, and educational consultants is time well spent. Ask the admissions representatives what they love most about working at the school. Where would they take their best friend on a day off? There are also resources like College Scoops that provide the inside scoops on campus life from current students that are timely, authentic, and offer parents a host of tips and advice too.
Location: There is More to Location than Meets the Eye
Identifying whether you want to live in a rural, suburban, college town, or city is the first step. Students need to drill down further to get to two questions that most college students wish they had focused on more when they were making their final decisions on which college to attend.
- Accessibility - The proximity of a campus to airports, trains, or bus stations factors into not only how easy it will be to get to and from home but also financially what students should plan for in terms of the costs of transportation. A college that is 15 minutes from an airport is an easy and relatively inexpensive Uber/taxi ride away. However, if the closest airport is a 2+ hour drive, students need to think about how realistic it will be to get home and the relevant costs.
- Surrounding Area - Besides the campus, what is life like in the surrounding town? What do students do for fun on the weekends? Is there hiking, biking, river rafting, arboretums, movie theaters, apple picking, skiing, museums, sports events that students enjoy during their free time? Where do current students take their friends or parents during a weekend visit?
Many families organize their road trips on a tight timeline, racing from one tour and information session to the next. Students and parents can learn a lot about the surrounding community when visiting a college by building in some extra time to explore a local farmer’s market, museum, or hiking trail. Parents forget it is not easy to move to a new neighborhood alone as a 17 or 18-year-old. College parents who have been through the college search process strongly encourage parents to take the opportunity to do something non-college related on a college road trip as a way to destress and actually have fun with your son or daughter.
Career Services: Will I Get a Job When I Graduate?
Students want to know if college is worth it, especially when families are spending upwards of $300k for a four-year degree. Does the career center do a good job helping students with internships and research opportunities? Is there an active and engaged alumni association? Does the college offer career nights, alumni speaker series, or alumni networking opportunities?
Ask the source - current students. How successful have they been utilizing the career services center? What are some lessons learned based on their experience, and what other resources would they recommend for incoming students?
Final Tips: Advice From College Students
Listen to what our Scoops Insiders wish they knew at freshman orientation.
- Lauren, Lehigh University: “Take advantage of the club fair first semester your freshman year! Get involved early and stay consistent with the same organizations and clubs. It is also a great way to network and meet with upperclassmen.”
- Janae, Cal Poly SLO: “ Take advantage of free tools like the writing and learning lab that can look over essays or other writing samples. Also, the Mustang Success Center is extremely helpful with choosing your classes.”
- Eric, UPENN: “Pre-professional organizations (consulting clubs, banking clubs etc) are fairly competitive to get into, so prepare early and also speak with upperclassmen.”
- Betsy, Wesleyan: “Try to follow the rule of seven (having no more than 7 things on your plate, such as taking four classes and doing three extracurricular activities). This will help you maintain a balanced but fulfilling schedule while at Wesleyan.”
- Oliver, Northwestern: “Biggest piece of advice I would give is that being a part of Greek life is essential if you want to have a classic Big 10 social experience. It is not a super selective or intimidating process like other schools, but it's important to meet people and find out about events that are happening.”
- Megan, Cornell University: “Find a study buddy, especially for language courses!”
- Cyrus, University of Florida: “ Apply to the Honors College. You will have to write a few additional essays but being an honors student has multiple benefits, such as early registration for classes (huge, you will get the classes you want) and the opportunity to live in Hume.”
- Clarissa, Case Western University: “Be prepared for tough classes. Almost everyone says it's harder than high school.”
- Sophie, Baylor University: “Take a business class (or honestly any class outside of your comfort zone).
- Avery, CU Boulder: “Understand that everything in Boulder is much more expensive than you think so plan for this!”
- Elizabeth, Brown University: “Taking a class or two at nearby RISD is a great way to meet new people and explore your artistic curiosities!”
- Jill, Colgate University: “Colgate does a phenomenal job in acquainting students to the strong alumni network starting in freshman year through multiple shadowing programs, interview panels, and internships.”