4 Ways To Check Out Colleges and Universities

I spent last week urging, some might say browbeating, people to look beyond the most obvious name schools when drawing up a college list. Beyond their local schools, I urged people to look at more than super expensive private East Coast schools, as well as prestigious state flagships that are charging obscene amounts of money — in some cases over $50,000 – to nonresidents. I am almost ready to move on to another topic.
On Friday, I suggested one way to find schools that don’t carry such ridiculous price tags  while delivering a great education. In the post, I recommended that families generate ideas by checking out Forbes Magazine’s college rankings. If you missed the post, here it is:

Looking Beyond Dream Schools for College

Here are four more ways to find potential schools and to research them:

1. Make the most of college fairs.

You can discover a decent amount about a school by spending time with an admission rep at a college fair. When I’m at a college fair, I like to stop by the tables of the admission reps who aren’t overwhelmed with visitors.  On the West Coast, schools like UCLA, UC Berkeley and San Diego State are mobbed. You are likely to have a fruitful conversation and learn more about a school when a less harried college rep has time to focus just on your questions.
At an arts college fair that I attended in New York City earlier this month, for instance, I learned a lot by talking with the point person for the modern dance program at the University of Utah, which is apparently one of the premiere programs in the country. The rep shared highlights of the program, the success of grads in getting jobs, as well as the talent scholarships available to dancers and she handed me a CD to watch later. She also assured me that the students in this small department can graduate in four years. I also learned a lot about another dance program — at George Mason University, including the availability of scholarships — by talking to the head of the department, who was incredibly enthusiastic about her program.

2. Try virtual college fair.

College fairs aren’t just being held in school auditoriums and convention centers anymore. They’ve gone virtual. CollegeWeekLive is a huge provider of them. When you attend one of these college fairs, you can have conversations with admission staffers without ever leaving your computer. With schools cutting back on college fair appearances due to budget problems, schools are increasingly interested in connecting with teenagers online.

3. Spend time on school academic websites.

Once you start gathering names, make sure you don’t just visit a school’s admission website. Poke around on the online home of academic departments, which should provide a more unfiltered look at what kind of learning is happening on the campus. What I like to see are signs of a vibrant academic department.  The physics department at North Carolina State serves as a great example of what I’m talking about. You can learn a lot about the physics department on its dynamic website including these sorts of facts:

  • The physics department received a 90% approval rating from its students in the 2010 school year.
  • Twelve professors are members of the North Carolina Academy of Outstanding Teachers.
  • The department awards research grants to undergraduates.
  • It has the 9th largest physics program in the country.
  • It produces a newsletter for physics students and maintains a physics society chapter.

4. Talk with students.

Here’s an easy way to get the scoop on a college, as well as academic departments. Ask current students questions. Unlike admission reps, they have no reason to be anything but honest. Here are some sample questions to ask:

  • What do you like about your school?
  • What do you dislike about your school?
  • Why did you end up attending this school?
  • What would you change about your school if you could?

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of  Shrinking the Cost of College workbook.  She also writes a college blog for  CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

Read More on The College Solution:

Is That Flagship Worth the Price?
How To Reach Out to a College
4 Stubborn Financial Aid Myths

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  1. Lynn, this is a great list of additional ways to find out about colleges. I think you have put together some terrific ideas. I could not agree more with what you said under “Talk with students.” They are more likely to tell you the truth and give you the inside scoop. They know what the social life is like as well as the academic life. They can tell you what the transition from high school to college was like for them. This is why CollegeSolved built the first network of current college students ready to provide this inside information by private phone call. We have “campus ambassadors” on over 250 schools across the US. You can start your search at http://www.collegesolved.com/students. We help you find students with similar interests at the school you are looking for. There will be even more resources coming in early September. Don’t let the admissions process go by without talking to students in our network.

    1. HI Hayward,
      That sounds like a great service since students do know the scoop on their own schools. How though do you compete with the fact that colleges would provide the names of their own students for teenagers to talk with. Or don’t you find that happening.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Lynn,
        There are some schools out there that are providing connections for prospective students, but what we have been able to do is provide an aggregator of students on campus with very diverse backgrounds. At schools like Ohio State, we have over 50 students and Brown University almost 30 students. Not only do we allow high school students the opportunity to find the best fit among a number of students, you can do the search and arrange the conversation all online. There is no need to go through the admissions office. This helps when you are looking at multiple schools, as it makes the process a lot more streamlined. Finally, we have begun offering the first call free when students sign up and earn some credits.