Many students and parents looking for a college don’t really know where to start. “What is a good college” or “good colleges” are frequently used search terms. There are colleges out there that aren’t so good, so it’s a question worth asking. Aside from distinguishing what is a less-than-desirable college, though, the question is as meaningful as asking “what is a good song?” or “what is a good shoe?”. It’s a matter of finding colleges that suit your particular tastes, needs, and ambitions. It’s not about finding a good college; it’s about finding a good fit.
Determining if a college might not be so good.
A good place to start is to look at the retention and graduation rates of the colleges you are exploring. The retention rate tells you how many students transfer out of a school. You want the retention rate to be 85% or above. If a fifth of the class or more is transferring out, a significant number of students probably find the atmosphere uncongenial, have difficulty getting the courses they want or need, find the facilities inadequate, find the campus unsafe, or a lack of funds might mean the dorms are in disrepair. If you’re looking at public universities, however, be mindful that the retention rates skew a little lower for public schools because students sometimes transfer out because of financial pressures. Look at the graduation rate to see how many students graduate in four years, five years, and six years, and how many don’t graduate at all. Again, this might suggest students have difficulty getting the classes they need for their majors, or that there’s a destructive party atmosphere at the school. If you want to graduate in four years and a lot of students are graduating in six, you might want to look elsewhere.
Determining if a college is good for you.
Consider the factors you want or need in a school. You might want to list the factors that are important to you, such as financial aid, particular majors (though most applicants eventually change majors), distance from home, urban or rural, the importance of sports facilities, health, and mental health facilities, internships, semesters abroad, class sizes, etc. Do you want a school that produces a lot of notable creatives - authors, podcasters, fashion designers, filmmakers, or a school that is heavily represented in tech fields? As you look at colleges, consider these factors. There is also the question of vibe. Visit as many schools as you can that seem possible fits, and see how the campus feels to you. There are questions of politics, aesthetics, approach to learning, class, and even architecture, that might make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable at a particular school. The way residential life is structured, the number of undergraduate classes taught by professors (not grad students), and the number of required core courses the college requires will affect the mood on campus, the enthusiasm for learning, and whether students feel comfortable.
Finding out about colleges.
The best way to find out about a college is not through promotional materials, a college tour with an exceptionally excited student, or a meeting with someone in the admissions office. It’s to talk to students when you visit campus and seek out online resources where the students communicate directly. On campus, politely ask students if you can talk to them briefly about their college experience. If they won’t talk to you (which is very unlikely), that tells you something; if they will talk to you, ask them what is their favorite thing about their college, and what is one thing they would like to change. Ask them about the academic and social aspects of their experience. Ask them if the college was what they expected it to be, and if not, why not? This question will zero in on how the college differs from stereotypes about it, and from how it is promoted. Also, find a copy of the college newspaper, take note of the signs on bulletin boards, visit classes, and spend time in the dining hall - do people look animated and social, or burdened and isolated? Are people talking about a class or a book, or are they complaining about a professor? Eavesdrop.
If you can’t visit a college, do a lot of online research. You can find the college newspaper online, and probably other magazines, such as a literary magazine, a feminist organization bulletin, or a science journal. See what students at your school are blogging or vlogging about, and how they are talking about the school on Reddit or other sites.
Ultimately, you have to take a lot of what you find out with a grain of salt. Don’t let one student’s opinion, the school’s ranking, or a dull lecture be the single reason why you reject a school you think might be a good fit. Gather a few data points before you make a decision. And, as noted in a previous blog entry, what you get out of your college experience depends a lot on what you put into it. If you’re willing to be open-minded and look for the best in others, you’ll have a good college experience. If you’re willing to work hard, go to visiting hours, and make relationships with teachers and TAs, you’ll have a good experience. If you take care of your physical and mental well-being, you’ll have a good experience. So don’t just look for a “good college”, look for a college that makes you excited about being part of the community, part of the discussion, as a journalist, athlete, lab partner, or in some other way. Look for these opportunities when you explore each college, and when you get a good feeling, that’s probably a good school for you.
You're also always welcome to contact us for professional help in finding colleges that are a good fit for you.