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Tom Hoffman | April 24, 2012

Studying the College Shopping Experience

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If you're like me, the parent of a soon-to-be college student, you're probably immersed in researching colleges and universities to help determine which ones may be a suitable fit for your child. After all, with a price tag that can exceed $200,000 for a four-year degree, finding the right college for your child is serious business.Thumbnail image for college.jpg

In fact, on some level, I'm approaching my daughter's college selection as a business decision. Sure, I want my daughter to enjoy the social and cultural aspects that the college/university experience has to offer. Ultimately, the choice between schools is up to her. But because tuition, room and board that can exceed $50,000 per year at some schools, it's important to closely examine what you're getting for your investment dollars. For instance, what's the typical instructor-to-student ratio for most classes? What's the percent of graduates who find employment in their chosen fields within six months of graduation? It's a brutal job market out there for today's youth. A new study finds that 1 out of 2 recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed. Picking the right school can make a huge difference.

My family and I recently returned from our first college visits and our impressions compelled me to write about our experiences. We live in New York State and decided to visit 3 schools due south as my daughter is interested in studying marine biology. Since Ali has not yet applied to any of these schools and is still in the early stages of evaluating her options, I've decided to refrain from naming any of the schools. But I will share some intimate details of our visits.

The first university we visited is located in a Mid-Atlantic state. The school has a budding marine biology program, which may help explain why they courted Ali like a high-value prospect. For instance, when we reached out to the office of the dean for the marine biology program to schedule a visit, the dean's assistant scheduled not just a tour of the main campus but also a graduate campus close to where we were staying that focuses on marine biology. She also blocked out an hour with the assistant dean.

After we arrived for a tour of the graduate campus, the grad student who was supposed to shepherd us along was a no-show. After finding the main office to inquire, the dean overhead us discussing our dilemma with an office assistant and graciously offered to provide us with a short tour of the campus until another grad student could step in. That the dean would take the time out of her busy day to give us an impromptu tour meant a lot to me as a prospective buyer.

A visit to the school's main campus was equally welcoming. The assistant dean met with us and spoke passionately about the development of the marine biology program. He also covered a wide range of course offerings and opportunities for study both within the program and across related disciplines. The assistant dean and his colleagues were very open and welcoming. Not only did they provide us with brochures that describe what the program offers, they talked us through the brochures in great detail.

It didn't seem like they were repeating the same information they'd shared for the umpteenth time. They didn't rush through their presentation and they genuinely seem to enjoy what they do.

After we returned home from our college visits, there was a hand-written postcard addressed to Ali from a grad student who had given us a tour at the Mid-Atlantic university. Talk about personalizing the experience.

The next stop was a university in the mid South. Here, we also set up a campus tour and a meeting with the dean of the marine biology program. However, the first impression wasn't nearly as welcoming. When the dean met with us, the first words he uttered were "What can I do for you?" It had the tone of, "I don't know much about you as a prospective student and I've got a very busy schedule."

Fortunately, the meeting and visit improved from there. The dean spent the next 35 minutes explaining how the program is structured, including typical class sizes, opportunities for internships as well as local and international field studies.
We concluded the visit with an hour-long tour with 20 other parents and students that was given by two undergraduate students who seemed very knowledgeable about the university's full offerings and who were open about discussing what it's like to attend school there.

Our final visit took place at a university in Florida. Unfortunately, the faculty for the marine biology department was unavailable to meet with us the one day that we were available. We did tour the campus and peek in on the science labs. But it was more of a generic tour that was intended to cover a gamut of major areas of study. Still, one of the admissions advisors gave us a very thorough description of campus life, including a breakdown of the total costs to attend and a ballpark estimate on the amount of grants and aid that are available.

We still have to visit schools in the Northeast, which we'll likely do this fall. But all in all, it was a good start. Of course, a big part of the selection process is the vibe that a prospective student feels when they're on campus. They really connect with some schools while others simply turn them off for one reason or another. Ali had good feelings about the first two schools we looked at, not so much about the one in Florida even though it has a perfectly nice campus and a friendly environment.

What have your college visits been like? Were there some schools that truly seemed to offer a 1to1 experience?


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