Pet peeves in the college search process

Friday, November 2, 2012 by Peter

My pet peeves? Not what you might think…

For quite some years now, I have been bothered by two particular issues that  make it difficult for students and families to distinguish between colleges and thus bogging down their college search process.  Each one can effectively lead to misguided decision making.   These issues are especially poignant to me as I am attending a huge college fair in Seattle right now, and can see with so many passing students that they lack the tools to navigate the college search process well.  I think (hope) the colleges are unwitting participants in making this search process difficult.  The popular media, and what it seems to value, also plays a role. Regardless, I think a lot of students start their college search in a way that prevents them from making much progress. At least at the start, the approach most students take is about 150 degrees wrong (in my opinion).

The first issue hinders the student from assessing the educational environment of the college.  I know full well, after helping my oldest through his college search and nudging my youngest to consider colleges, and by assisting several of their and my friends, that students are mostly limited in what they can determine about the learning environment.  The proxies for understanding the learning atmosphere include the student-to-faculty ratio, or the average class size.  I am sure that there are plenty reading this blog who know statistics well enough not to draw too many conclusions from some simple dat points.  But I do find this statistic interesting: 37% of expenditures at liberal arts colleges are on student services and institutional support compared to 18% at public colleges.

One *might* foster hope that a college is putting resources into teaching if they intentionally keep classes small.  Still, I would prefer taking a class of 60 students from an instructor who loves to teach and is good at it, than taking a class of 10 taught by someone who can’t wait to ditch the class and get back to his or her research with grad students. What is the alternative to those data points (class size and student-faculty ratio) in assessing the learning environment? First,  I assume that the prospective student cares about the quality of teaching.  Next, if one is able to actually visit the school and see the classroom interactions, that would be ideal.  That takes time, money, and effort. Not everyone has that luxury to visit each college.  Moving beyond the visit, let’s find out how faculty members are hired, gain tenure, and are promoted. In my book, if teaching is revered, the good teachers and the dedicated mentors survive, and those who can’t connect with undergraduates are encouraged to move out. Allright, Mr. Smarty-pants (calling out the author now), where does one find this information?  Possibly in the back pages of the catalog or in a faculty handbook.

The second issue is a disturbing channeling of students.  Having started my career at a fine liberal arts school, and now working at an undergraduate Math and Science college, I find it more than a little troubling that students interested in fields of science, and Engineering, in particular, must declare their specific major when they apply for admission. How many students in high school have taken an engineering class that is remotely similar to a rigorous college Engineering course and can determine their path with any certainty?  I think this actually discourages students from going into the STEM fields in the US and thereby contributes to the US falling farther behind other countries in producing scientists and engineers. I wish students could try their choices first and then decide their major pathway. This is the way HMC operates, as do many fine (usually smaller and undergraduate-focused) colleges. At HMC, most students pick the major toward the end of the sophomore year, after trying out all the departments.

The process of finding a “good fit” college is difficult enough.  I just wish there were more support available to students and families in this important decision process.

For my next blog, I will take on the selection process.  TTFN  (ta-ta for now)