Selecting a College: Advice from a Parent and College President
by Adam Weinberg
April 4, 2018
Student walking as the sun sets

The college admission process can be daunting. Here are some ideas from a college president — and a parent who has been through it twice — on the ways parents can help with the final college selection.

Let me start with a simple observation. You can get a great education at a wide range of colleges in this country. But if the fit is wrong, it is nearly impossible to get a great education – no matter how good the college is. Conversely, when you get the fit right, your student will have a great four years and then launch into a successful life.

Elsewhere, I have written on what we know about what needs to happen in college. I continue to recommend reading How College Works by Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, as well as The Gallup-Purdue Index.  I boil these down to three things that your student can do to find success in college:

  • Find a mentor: One of the defining characteristics of a transformative college experience is having a good mentor. In particular, faculty mentorship is crucial.
  • Participate in a few activities outside the classroom in some depth: These activities supplement student learning with good leadership and management skills.
  • Surround yourself with an array of students who are maximizing their college experience: This is what educators call lateral learning. It matters, because students learn a lot from one another.

As a parent your goal should be to help your child find a college where they are likely to become immersed quickly, develop a close mentoring relationship with a faculty member, and get involved in co-curricular activities that allow them to find good friends and develop strong life skills.

Start by narrowing down the final list to two to four colleges. This requires having an open and honest conversation with your child about what college means for them. What do they want to study? What size feels right?

As you have this conversation, make sure you select colleges where they can pursue their interests. Don’t choose a college where they only will be able to watch others perform. If they play a sport or have a passion for an artistic endeavor, choose a college where they will make the team, be cast in a play, join a music ensemble, and have a chance to pursue their interests.

This also is true for students who want to major in the sciences. Be wary of places where graduate students replace professors in classrooms and knock undergraduates out of labs.

Choose a college where undergraduates get into labs early and often, and where they get to conduct their own research.

Fit also requires being honest with what is affordable. The sticker price, (the listed tuition price), is not very helpful. The financial aid letters you are receiving can be hard to decipher. You also need to know the following: How many years does it take the average student to graduate? For example, at Denison, like most private colleges, it is four years. At some public universities, it often takes five or even six years (therefore, an extra year or two of tuition). And ask if financial aid will be in place for the entire time they are in college.

As a parent, I also realize that affordability is connected to return on investment. One of the mistakes families make is selecting a college because of very small differences in price. It does not make sense to go to a college that is slightly less expensive if the fit is not right. At the same time, debt does matter. My own view is that a manageable level of debt is worth it to get an education that is the right fit for the student. Families need to determine what that level is for them.

Once you have the short list, visit the colleges one more time.  Try to attend one of the April Visit Days that colleges offer for admitted students. Encourage your child to spend the night. When you leave the campus, ask them questions, as opposed to offering your observations. Where do they feel comfortable? Which one feels right? I am convinced that this gut check often leads students to make the right decision. Maybe this is the college selection version of the “Blink” principle.

Here are some questions to ask during April Visit Days that are important, but not often thought of: What is the size of the endowment per student (which can translate into the financial resources a college can spend on providing student experiences)? What is the mood on campus? You want to be someplace where faculty, staff and students are proud of the college.

Location also matters. I believe there is an advantage to being in a location that has a healthy community surrounding the college and easy access to an airport and city. And I will admit that my opinion is biased, given that Denison has one of the best locations of any liberal arts college in the nation. We have a beautiful campus in an idyllic village that is 25 minutes from Columbus, which is a vibrant city filled with music, culture and global businesses.

Finally, pay attention to the first-year program. Select a college where a lot of attention is paid to how students transition into college and the support they receive if they stumble. Once students get connected to courses, faculty, friends and co-curricular activities, they can thrive, but many students can have some bumps along the way.

Enjoy the process. Enjoy the process of traveling with them to make those final college visits and savor the opportunity to talk to them about what they want in and from a college. Choosing the right college is a chance to have some quality time and conversations with your child.

And, once you select a college, make sure the conversation continues. We expend way too much energy worrying about getting in and selecting the right college, and not nearly enough focusing on how to transition into college and how to take full advantage of the college experience.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.