College visits are a great way to compare school choices and decide on where you want to attend. That is if you actually gain something worthwhile from your visits by paying attention and knowing what to look for. Generally the advice on college visits begins and ends with statements like “Go visit”, “Check it out” and “See what you think”. For a high school student this is a terribly small amount of advice provided to make a decision as far reaching as choice of education. Here are some key areas of concern that a prospective student should be aware of when they take a campus visit.
1. Technology: I cannot stress enough how important it is for a university to integrate useful and productive technologies on campus and in classrooms. Key areas where technology makes a major impact include:
- A) Administration: How easy is it to get financial aid processed, billing issues settled and registration cleared? The answer is proportional to how well information technology works at a school. An environment of thousands of students is naturally a state of chaos creating a physical mess of paperwork for departments to deal with, unless those departments utilize technology. Where once there was stacks of paper miles high, well integrated schools now have scanners to manage paperwork flow and save data in a lower cost and more efficient manner. To investigate this question while on a college visit go to the billing office and find out how their online payment and registration systems work. Go to financial aid and find out how they process all the forms required. Compare what you see to all the schools you visit and observe which schools handle their processes the best.
- B) Classrooms: Will classes require that you buy a lot of paper printed books or are electronic books becoming more popular? As noted in earlier articles, technology in the classroom is a major issue. Students are now able to learn useful knowledge through many digital formats beyond the standard book. The challenge is that many professors and institutions of higher learning have been slow to adopt these methods, leaving college students technologically stunted in their education while paying more money for antiquated ways. Some colleges, like those in the state of Washington, are meeting this challenge by offering online book resources through an open source collaboration of professors and librarians. Not only does this lower book costs for students, but it brings educators together to produce a customized, up-to-date knowledge resource to develop better learning.
2. The real student/professor ratio: This much ballyhooed statistic is traditionally where an expensive college can demonstrate value. It follows the line of thinking that smaller classroom enrollment creates a more close knit and immersive learning experience where professors can interact with students point by point. The magic classroom student/professor ratio most students look for is 20/1 to as low as 12/1. However, the published statistics from schools do not regularly match up to the experience most students actually have. You have to look beyond the ratios to find out what really happens in class.
- A) Does the school rely heavily on adjuncts, part time professors and teaching assistants to handle the majority of undergraduate teaching? Is this justified by the cost of tuition? Part time faculty can provide great value in their own right, but if paying top dollar for tuition than you deserve more. Visiting a campus for a spot check can confirm what really goes on.
- B) Does the ratio include undergraduate, graduate and PHD programs? If so the numbers do not reflect your freshman experience as an undergraduate. Graduate and PHD programs always have better teacher to student ratios than undergraduate. These ratios should not be co-mingled
- C) Are research faculty counted in the ratio? Research faculty almost never teach undergraduates, so they should not be included in the ratio either.
3. The real campus vibe: Much of your college career will be spent socializing with campus life. You need to know what you are jumping into before you go. Do not assume every college is the same socially, as you will find there is great variation between location and makeup of student body.
- A) Are most of the students commuters or residents? This is probably the largest determining factor to the “feel” of campus. Schools with lots of students on campus tend to be full of activities, intramural sports can be very competitive and Frats/Sororities can be very popular. Colleges with lots of commuters still carry many of the same activities, but they are not the dominant center of college life for the majority of students. Commuter colleges tend to have more professionals on campus going to school after work. With that comes a focused and career oriented student body that is well aware of life outside of school. If you have a desire to live on campus and participate in all the activities offered, then go to a school with lots of other residents to share this experience. If you want to attend a school to focus on education and career goals and could care less about the Football team, then a commuter school is a better choice.
- B) Does it feel spacious, cozy or somewhere in between? Colleges come in all shapes and sizes to meet the needs of many students. Look for things like the number of students that share a single dorm room, or the amount of people in the cafeteria at lunch time. Is it a bustling rush of people? Is it mostly quiet and peaceful? What do you prefer?
- C) How is the food, really? The quality of cafeteria food available has been an issue of ongoing contention with students. If the old adage “You are what you eat” is true than in many ways the University is what it serves for lunch. Today many students have special dietary needs making their eating arrangements at times complicated. There is gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian, vegan, kosher and halal dietary needs just to name a few. Beyond those examples, all students should have access to fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis if they are to have a complete diet. Does the cafeteria at the school you visit promote healthy diet and eating habits by offering nutritional food? When
considering the cost of a meal plan, does it offer the nutrition you need?
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