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College choices: a deeper look

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 2005

The search for college should be about "the right fit," experts say. For some, that might simply be a matter of where the price is right, or which campus environment feels comfortable. But there's always that central question: How much are the students learning?

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For families in the throes of college applications or planning ahead for next year's campus visits, here are four tips from experts for looking beyond popular college rankings in the search for a good education.

Tip No. 1: Build your own college ranking system.

Debra Stuart has 30-plus years of experience at universities, and she has a long title to prove it: vice chancellor for administration with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. So she was a well-informed parent when it came time for her and her husband to help their daughter look at colleges a few years ago.

First they thought about the size of school their daughter wanted, the majors that most interested her, and the places she'd like to live.

Then they mined various guidebooks for basic information - like whether a school or a particular program was accredited. They also took a look at the ubiquitous US News & World Report's annual college issue. But because rankings are subjective, the family picked them apart and decided which factors they wanted to weight more heavily.

" 'Good,' in our mind, was that they had good graduation rates [and] a good student-faculty ratio," Ms. Stuart says, "because these were things that we knew [would help] our daughter and her learning style."

They visited campuses - armed with their own rankings and a quiver of questions.

Tip No. 2: Focus on the first year.

Find out how a college determines what classes freshmen should take. "Students come with all sorts of abilities, and part of what makes or breaks a student is their experience in their first year," Stuart says. "Do they have a placement test for math ... and how successful is that?"

Some colleges have semester- or year-long seminars that group freshmen together to help them adjust to campus life. Others work to make sure students have enough contact with faculty so that they don't feel like a number. The Policy Center on the First Year of College offers information about the most effective initiatives (see box, bottom, left).

Tip No. 3: Gauge the engagement.

"Research shows that if students engage in certain activities, they're likely to learn more than if they don't," says Trudy Banta, vice chancellor for planning and institutional improvement at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. The long list includes: "things like participating in faculty research; study abroad;... service learning; contact with faculty outside the classroom - [especially] talking about intellectual matters; group work with peers; and how much they study."

It's easier to find this data if the school participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). More than 900 colleges have done so over the past six years, but it's up to the schools to decide if they want to release their results. Ms. Banta believes most schools would make results available if prospective students requested it. You can then compare their data with benchmarks on the NSSE website.