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This post was updated on September 23, 2020. It was originally published on June 1, 2016. 

Rising high school juniors and seniors have already begun or will begin to look seriously at colleges soon. Many students are focused on the following factors in their college search:

  • The looks and size of the campus
  • The quality of campus life (parties/culture/things to do)
  • The honors and study-abroad programs
  • Fraternities and sororities
  • The sports programs

As a parent, you know that these things alone are not enough for your child to determine his or her true college fit.

Before your student makes a commitment to any college, encourage him or her to consider these ten other crucial areas of college life that could make or break the experience.

1. The number of course requirements

Course requirements vary widely from school to school. You don’t want to find yourself mired in courses that don’t interest you, while you’re unable to take electives in the areas that do interest you. This is especially important if you will not test out of required classes through AP or CLEP Exams (or if the school does not allow this).

Course requirements tie in directly with what type of curriculum you are really looking for in the first place.

What type of curriculum would work best for you/your student?

If your student is self-motivated and thrives on independence and creativity, there are several schools that offer extremely flexible or even fully open core curricula. To name a few: Brown University, Amherst College, Wesleyan University, and Grinnell College.

On the other side of the spectrum—for those students who may value more guidance and/or building a general foundation—some schools have rigorous and structured core curricula that require you to take a certain set of classes (often in a certain order) before you can focus on the subject of your choice. Columbia University and The University of Chicago are two noteworthy examples of schools with traditional core curricula, though there are many strong (and far less competitive) schools in this regard. There are also colleges that have voluntary core programs (Boston University and UT Austin, for example).

Diving even deeper, a subcategory of these core curriculum schools are the “Great Books Programs” (examples include St. Johns College, Hillsdale College, and The University of Dallas). At some of these schools, you will take a prescribed four-year curriculum.

So, do you want the guidance and structure of a core curriculum? Or, do you want the independence and creativity to take what you want right off the bat? And then there’s the happy medium– some structure to help you find your way, but enough leeway when it comes to requirements that you don’t feel restricted.

2. The flexibility of course requirements

As an extension to number one, schools that require specific courses can put you in a bind if you’d rather take more advanced courses, or if you need to take more remedial courses to fulfill that requirement.

Be sure to check that the school allows a choice of course levels to satisfy the various requirements. It is not pleasant to have to wait for multiple semesters to get into a 500-person general education requirement.

The crucial point here is VARIETY in course selection among the required courses.

Also, keep in mind that many top professors avoid teaching large mandatory classes that route hundreds or even thousands of students through the course.

Bonus Tip: Some classes may count for two, or even three, course requirements! Just make sure to verify.

3. The availability of your college major

It’s critical to check the list of majors at each college. Never assume that your college of choice offers every possible major, especially if you have a very specialized major in mind.

At certain colleges, some majors are not open to all students, especially those majors that require talent or training (music/art, nursing), or those majors that are extremely popular and/or must be limited based on departmental resources or prestige (business, journalism).

4. The availability of your desired classes

Faculty size does not tend to grow commensurately with increased student enrollment. As a result, there may be very long waitlists for some classes and shortages in first-year classes for students who did not register on the first possible date.

Be sure to check the availability of your desired courses before sending in your acceptance letter to the college.

The last thing you want to happen is to spend another year or two on tuition because you couldn’t get into required courses for your major.

5. The availability of professors teaching the course

At many state universities, a significant number of instructors are graduate students. It’s important to know how much of your instruction, especially in the first years of college, will be designated to graduate student teachers.

It’s ok if a regular professor gives the lectures and the grad student leads discussion sections; however, issues can arise at schools where grad students are allowed to teach entire courses on their own. This usually occurs at large research universities.

This is not to say that grad students are necessarily worse at teaching the material than a professor. Professors, however, are already vetted through online reviews and word of mouth, in addition to being a leading mind in their particular subject. With a graduate student, you don’t really know what you’re going to get. Sites like RateMyProfessors or your own college’s rating platform don’t usually have many reviews for grad students.

Although a grad student may have more to prove (good thing!), they will often have less teaching experience and are crazy busy with their work (even busier than professors). Seriously, they are worked to the bone.

6. The student/faculty ratio

If you attend a school with 10 to 20 students per faculty member, you’re likely to get a lot of individual attention from the faculty. Once the number of students per faculty member goes above 20, you may not get much handholding from a professor.

Do you want to spend half of your experience in massive lectures with no real accountability or mentorship from your professors? This is a major reason why people choose smaller schools or even community colleges. Smaller ratios usually mean it’s easier to get to know the professor and your fellow students.

That being said, many people do just fine at schools with larger faculty-student ratios. You have to be more proactive about meeting your professors, but you would be surprised by how much they want to help if you just take the time to introduce yourself and go to their office hours.

Note: Many schools claim to have a very low student-faculty ratio. This is because they are including instructors and graduate students, not just professors. You will need to do more digging to figure out how accurate their numbers really are.

7. The percentage of students who graduate

Graduation rate is a good indicator of the community that you will be a part of, how much support the college offers, and whether the school makes good on its advertised value.

A school with a graduation rate over 80 percent is great, and a graduation rate of 60 to 80 percent is quite normal;  a school whose graduation rate is under 60 percent is not good.

Considering there are other factors like student preparedness and family support, graduation rate does not entirely explain how well the school aids its students, but it is a good metric to start with.

Here are two other helpful stats to research:

The average time a student takes to receive a degree: You may want to avoid schools whose students take an average of five or six years to graduate. This means more money spent and less time making money.

Retention rate: This tracks the number of first-time, first-year students who STAY for a second year. Unfortunately, schools are not required to publish this, so you may need to do some sleuthing.

8. The quality of the career placement/services department

This is an incredibly underrated factor when it comes to the college search.

Very few students even think to ask about the career placement department, but this should be a key item on your checklist assuming that your child would like to graduate with a job, and a decent one at that.

How do you find out how effective their career placement is?

Students should ask specific questions such as these:

– What job placement services are provided by the placement office?

– Will they help you identify your strengths and help determine fitting career paths?

– What percentage of graduates are employed prior to graduation?

– Which companies and organizations recruit your graduates?

9. Are you required to take computer–taught or online classes?

To save money, some colleges use computer programs for course instruction or have their lectures posted online, rather than use live instructors. It’s the new do-it-yourself method of instruction, which may not be the best learning experience for the student.

Obviously, right now, colleges have gone online for safety reasons.  Many college students and parents are frustrated about paying full price for online classes—what many consider a substandard product. It looks like these classes are here to stay, at least for the time being. It’s certainly possible that some schools begin moving more and more online after this forced experiment, virus or no.

10. The total cost of college

Finding the right college involves identifying the right academic, personal, AND financial fit. Unfortunately, we often fall into the trap of wanting our kids to go to the most prestigious schools without really having the means to pay for it.

The financial aspect should not be overlooked. There are many colleges out there; your student may find a much better fit at a small private school or state school where they can thrive while receiving generous need-based and/or merit-based aid.

If you plan to attend college then you should know upfront what the total cost of college will be to get a degree. Make sure to look at the total cost all-in: your Cost of Attendance.

You and your student should research any opportunities to receive financial aid to help offset that total cost. You will need to find the answers to these questions: how does the college financially reward a good student? What forms are used by the college to determine financial aid eligibility? What non-need or merit grants and scholarships are available from the college? And what is the average debt incurred by each student upon graduation?

Make sure to keep communication lines open with the financial aid offices at prospective colleges; things change and they may be able to throw more money your way!

How can a student get this much-needed information from the various colleges?

The College Board website is a great starting resource for determining how much need schools meet, and of that need, what percentage is grants/scholarships and what percentage is work-study/student loans.

Furthermore, check the college websites themselves for merit aid information. Many schools offer merit scholarships that you automatically qualify for just by applying. There are institutional, departmental, and organizational scholarships as well which will require a separate application/essay.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to admissions officers, students, and recent graduates of the schools for more information. Regardless of how you get the scoop, it is very important in order to make the best possible college choice and get the most out of your college experience.

Researching Colleges Amidst COVID-19

I would add a couple final suggestions given the current pandemic.

  1. When researching schools, pay attention to the ones who are diligent and responsive when it comes to answering your questions as well as adapting to rapid change. Focus on schools that have a concrete vision and continue to pursue it despite the issues at hand. This is a good indicator of strong leadership, culture, and community support. How do you track this? Talk to current students and follow schools on social media. Furthermore, take advantage of the massive online shift. Some schools have shifted a ton of resources for prospective students online–think virtual tours, classes, guest lectures, student events, you name it.
  2. With questions about enrollment still lingering for the next school year, make sure to keep open lines of communication with admissions counselors and financial aid officers. There’s a chance you receive more aid than anticipated if you stay the course and keep the conversation going.

For many families, the high cost of higher education is a daunting proposition. The College Funding Coach is here to help. To learn more about paying for college while saving for retirement, register for one of our free workshops/webinars or speak with a coach to get started on your college funding journey.


Brock Jolly,









Related Reading:

How to Qualify for More Financial Aid During COVID-19

Socializing and Preserving Mental Health in College: The COVID Conundrum

The Financial Aid Appeals Process: A Guide to Everything You Need to Know

8 Tips for Writing a Successful Financial Aid Appeal Letter

College Financial Aid – Know the Rules!


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