How to tell if a college is “good”

When students ask us to compile a list of recommended colleges, they are often thinking of rank and reputation. But, as we well know, rankings in magazines are usually just a popularity contest, and sometimes are not always even true. Ranking can also make admission rates vary; colleges have learned to manipulate rankings without fundamentally changing anything about their schools.

At the same time, many truly good colleges are overlooked. Can we correct this?

Using additional measures can provide real, significant information about an institution’s quality of a college:

  1. What is its retention rate? What percentage of first-year students return to this campus for their second year?
  2. What is its 4-year graduation rate? 6-year graduation rate?
  3. The school may offer the major a student wants, but how many courses are there? Are there opportunities for undergraduates?  
  4. What is the average class size? And what is the overall student-faculty ratio? This does not mean the student-teacher ratio. There is a difference.

All of the answers may be found in the data for each school. The key is to locating this data. We cannot assume that students will able to find answers on their own, so others need to be prepared to help them by doing the research.

The answers lie in each school’s Common Data Set. For new counselors, the CDS is a document of about 33 pages compiled each year by the school’s office of institutional research. It is a collaborative effort, but schools are not required to answer. It is uniform, meaning that the same information is asked in the same order. But it offers a wealth of statistics: who is reporting the information, if the school offers undergraduate degrees only or both undergraduate and graduate degrees, how many applications are filed each year, how many are chosen, and how many have enrolled. Does the school offer a waiting list? All enrolled students are listed: how many men, how many women, how many of each race. It tells how many teachers there are, what their highest degree is, and what race they are. You can see the sticker price (that is, tuition charged before scholarships are taken into consideration), the cost of housing and dining, and any fees charged.

Schools know not every person wants every bit of information, so they often give a page of “fast facts” about themselves. But there should also be a link to the current Common Data Set; most schools give the last few years’ results. This way, you can see in what ways the school has expanded or not. So the first thing is to look at a school’s website and see if the CDS is offered. You may need to go to the school’s “search” function and simply ask for the CDS.

But if there are just “Fast Facts” you can try another way. Google the name of the school AND the phrase “Common Data Set.” Either it will come up, if it exists, or not. You may be led to a “CDS” produced by another source, with some of the data available. Or you may be asked to fill out a data request form. Or you may be told to request information from a certain person on campus. This requires a time investment, and may not provide the information you seek.

When you ask for a school’s CDS, why are you offered all kinds of information except the CDS? Is the school trying to make things easier for me – or is this an attempt not to reveal something?

Take a look at the first thing suggested: what percentage of first-year students return to this school for a second year? 97% is excellent – 65% says something else. There can be many reasons for students’ not returning, including health and finances. But you need to ask for an explanation.

The second thing is the 6-year graduation rate. The CDS gives this as an indication of student success. A 6-year rate is usually given rather than 4, as many things can interfere with student progress: work opportunities, internships, illness, family reasons, switching majors, or holding down a job while balancing school responsibilities. If, for example, every member of a cohort that began college in the fall of 2018 graduated by the spring of 2022, that would be a rate of 100%. No school has that. But 91% is pretty good. 42% is not. What if you can’t find the graduation rate? It’s there: colleges know this information. You will need to ask.

If students want a certain major, you know which schools to suggest. But how many courses does the school offer in this area? What is their average size? Are there scholarships available? Does the school help students get internships? Is there a space in the department for students to gather? How many graduate each year with this major? Where are last year’s graduates? From five years ago? In other words, is there support for this major? Schools will be very eager to provide information about successful graduates.

And, significantly, who teaches the courses? Who teaches the introductory courses and who teaches more advanced classes? This is the final, and possibly the most significant, question you can ask about this school. It is normal for a university (which has a grad school) to have some advanced students teaching intro courses.

But it is not normal is to have 40%, 50%, 60% or more of the teaching staff working as part-time, contingent faculty. This shows that skimping on salaries is more important to this school than the educational process. Counselors should care if colleges have huge numbers of contingent faculty. They should see as red flags repeated, chronic labor issues on a campus. An unhappy teaching force may reflect working conditions that will definitely affect our students’ learning conditions.

Train your students to ask very pointed questions. When colleges send admissions reps to high schools to recruit applicants they answer most students’ questions. But they don’t address the working conditions of faculty – and in fact, they are usually unaware of them. Sometimes, and often at smaller schools, faculty and administration do work together for the benefit of the students; but those are the exceptions. At large universities, despite all the administrative personnel, students are on their own.

Colleges may be charging high tuition, but shortchanging students. If they continue to persist in treating huge numbers of their teachers poorly, we can expect a continuing decline in higher education. More teachers will leave the profession, fewer students will aspire to become teachers, and classes will get even larger. Only those who can afford it will even go to college or graduate school. Adjuncts will quit in disgust, courses will have no teachers, and colleges will have to retrench or close down. Students may pursue degrees, but not real education.

Those of us who were nurtured by caring teachers, who inspired us with their passion for learning, and those of us who still care about students, are filled with dread. Today’s students must be very careful, and ask uncomfortable questions.                    

Dr. Jane S. Gabin was senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill for 10 years, and then worked as a college counselor in New York City, most recently at the United Nations International School. Currently she operates Collegiate Consulting, an independent educational counseling firm, in Chapel Hill, NC.