This post was updated on November 3, 2020. It was originally published on July 6, 2016.
If your child is serious about going to college, then you need to look beyond those expensive, glossy, full-color college brochures and fancy websites that tout the institution’s image and credentials. You need to do your research and ask the right questions.
It may be tempting amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to do some surface-level research, throw your hands up in the air, and take a shot at a school. Think again. There is a lot of money on the line.
The Importance of College Visits
Typically, to get a sense for school fit you want to gather first-hand intelligence about the schools on your list by physically exploring them. The most important source of information about a college is the personal impression you receive from visiting the campus.
A word of warning: Official campus visits can be double-edged swords. Although they can give you a much better sense for the school, they can also be flashy marketing gimmicks that only show you the pretty façade and not the reality that students face every day. That being said, it’s still very helpful to visit colleges; you just need to be aware of what they are showing you. Ask questions about topics that are not covered and explore the parts of the school that are not emphasized on the tour.
Visiting Colleges in the Age of COVID-19
Of course, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the process. Students right now may have to depend on virtual tours, social media, admissions webinars, and word of mouth to make their decisions.
The good news is that more and more schools are reinstating personal visits with added safety measures. This means—if you can safely visit—you could actually get a tour by yourself where you can ask questions to your heart’s content and convince the tour guide to go off-script.
What if I can’t visit a college?
But what if you can’t travel safely or your colleges are not allowing visitors? You’ll want to do the following:
- Take a virtual tour – it may not be the real thing but is easy to access and depending on the school, quite informative. You can find these on some school websites or sites like Campus Reel and YouVisit.
- Follow school social media accounts – this is a great way to get updates on what’s going on and get a sense of the community.
- Search YouTube for student-made videos – these videos can give you an awesome glimpse into student perspectives and day-to-day experiences.
- Research how the college has responded to adversity – Have the faculty and administration adapted to rapidly changing situations with flexible solutions? Pay attention to the ones who are diligent and responsive when it comes to answering your questions. 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 and culture.
- Talk to anyone you know who attends or attended the college – Emphasis on those who are attending right now, as they have first-hand knowledge of how the college is handling the current predicament.
Don’t Forget About Academics
Going to college is one of the most important decisions that a young person makes, so gathering as much information as you can about each school is vital.
For those of you who are able to visit your schools of choice, the campus visit is serious business. Unfortunately, most visits fall far short of their potential. This is because prospective students and parents don’t ask the right questions and they end up settling for the information that institutions routinely provide.
Does it really matter how many books are in the library, or how many faculty members have PhDs (which says nothing about their ability to teach)? Remember, campus tours are meant to demonstrate all the marketable aspects of the school: the state-of-the-art gym, the free ice cream, the stunning architecture and grounds—you get the picture.
This stuff is great to have, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing more than window dressing. Focus on the things that really matter.
Do the students engage in a variety of educationally sound activities, inside and outside the classroom? Do students practice and get feedback on their writing, analyzing, or problem-solving? Will they gain valuable experiences with people from different backgrounds, thereby making them more sensitive, comfortable, and effective when working with such people. Simply put, how engaging is the college? How much of an effort does it put forth to ensure that its students actually LEARN?
Ask the Right Questions on Your College Visit
Surprisingly, students hear almost nothing about “learning” when they visit campuses. But they can find out by asking certain questions of tour guides, admissions staff, and faculty members. Answers to the following questions will reveal things about a college that you may never discover otherwise:
- How much reading and writing is assigned in the first year?
- Are there small, specialty courses designed only for students who are in their first year?
- How often do students meet with faculty members outside of class?
- Are students encouraged to work together to solve problems or work on projects? Is collaborative learning a priority?
- In what ways is information technology used in the classroom? And, considering the times, what is the plan/breakdown going forward for in-person and virtual classes?
- What does their advising program look like? And what resources does the school have for first-year students struggling to make the transition (both from an academic and personal perspective)?
- Who do students talk with about career plans? Do they have a career center?
Asking the right questions can reveal matters of substance that reflect the educational quality of a college. For a more comprehensive list of questions to ask, here are 10 things you should research before committing to a college.
Don’t Forget the Financial Piece
Sometimes the paying for college part takes a backseat to the very emotional search for the right school. As parents, you should sit down with your kids at a reasonable age and impress upon them how expensive college is and how much you are willing to spend. This will allow you to make a practical list of schools with your student and build a funding strategy around it. To be clear, consider all schools, but set realistic expectations.
Too often students have their heart set on one school, only for their parents to realize they have no way to pay for it—and even worse, the parents think “we’ll just figure it out.” This is a dangerous path to tread—a path that can jeopardize both the parents’ retirement and the student’s financial future.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are more ways to pay for college than parental income and student loans. One of the underrated pieces of the college funding strategy is utilizing OPM, or “Other People’s Money.” Whether this comes in the form of need-based financial aid, tuition discounts, or private scholarships, there are options out there for you! All of this considered, certain colleges may be more affordable than you think!
This is where our college funding coaches come in. Our coaches will help you understand the financial aid system and help you create a game plan to save and pay for college with efficient money.
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