Data-driven college searches

When I applied to college twenty years ago, information for prospective students came in primarily five forms:

  • brochures from colleges and universities;
  • thick books aggregating information about colleges and universities, with one or two pages dedicated to each institution;
  • primitive, searchable databases, available on CD-ROM;
  • admissions officers visiting high schools or college fairs;
  • campus visits.

And hoo boy, was I poorly informed.  I made decisions based on the aesthetics of college campuses—as shown in brochure photos, but also on my limited visits—and on my belief that I needed to be in an environment significantly different from my very large Southern California high school.

I ended up on the opposite coast, and I fit the public liberal arts college’s student profile just about perfectly. It was a beautiful campus, but only after landing at a college that was 95 percent white did I realize I thrived in diverse environments. Only after I walked into the meaty, greasy, carb-heavy dining hall did I understand I really did need lots and lots of fresh vegetables and vegetarian sources of protein to remain happy and health. Only after being shoved into a dilapidated dorm room far too small for three people did I realize I needed some basic creature comforts that the dorm just didn’t provide.

I lasted only one semester.  A couple years later, while an admissions tour guide at my third college, I advised all prospective students to “Stay overnight in the dorms; eat the food; meet the people.”  (That advice still applies, by the way.)

Today, however, we have the opposite situation from what 17-year-old me faced; we have a glut of college information available to us online. Strangely, however, most college rankings lists include the same kind of information I encountered as a college junior and senior in those thick books in the early 1990s: number of students, number of majors, SAT and ACT scores, class rankings and GPAs of incoming students, tuition and fees.

While this is all useful information for applicants, it doesn’t allow us to understand what’s really going on at a college or university. Questions we ought to be asking include these:

  • Is the institution fiscally sound? Where does its funding come from?
  • How much of its funding goes to undergraduate education?
  • How many students graduate in 4 years or 6 years?
  • What is the real net price a student’s family is likely to pay?  (This is why I like the Washington Monthly rankings so much.)
  • What percentage of the faculty are tenure-line professors invested in the future of the university, and what portion is contingent labor?
  • How much more does the football coach make than a professor?  (For example, at my institution, last I checked, the coach made 45 times what a new prof earned in a year.)
  • What’s the average age of an undergraduate?
  • What’s the difference between what the college spends on each undergraduate each year, and what the undergraduate pays?
  • If it’s a residential college, how many students leave campus each weekend to go home?
  • In what kind of classrooms do students learn?
  • What technologies are used as part of the average course?
  • Are online courses available, and if so, what’s the completion rate?
  • How many students undertake internships, and where?
  • Does the college act in loco parentis, or does it give students greater independence?
  • What percent of its students go on to public service careers, such as the Peace Corps?
  • Is this a campus where professors (from that college or elsewhere) tend to send their own kids?
  • Do all the students look like me (or my high school student), and is that a good thing?


The questions that matter vary by student and family.  Learning to ask the right questions for your family is not easy, as the most important questions (aside from financial aid availability) are rarely obvious.  And sometimes the answers, even though they are on the Internet or a phone call away, can be difficult to find.  Once you’re looking at numbers and options, crunching and comparing data is not usually as fun as daydreaming about the perfect fall day at your ideal college campus.

In the end, yes, your gut is going to play a big part in your college enrollment decision.  But your search for your right school need not be driven by popular misconceptions, whim, or emotion.  Ask the right questions, find the right data, and interpret that data thoughtfully.

If you need help figuring out what questions you should be asking, how to find the answers to those questions, or how to make sense of data, you can get in touch with me for help.