Applying to College? “Big Data” Can Help You Track Key Metrics that May Affect Your Success There

“Big Data” is becoming an important watch word in society. It shapes research in healthcare, politics, and economics, for example. It is revolutionizing our understanding of human health and ability to provide healthcare. It can also be essential in informing your search for campuses that have what it takes to help you make your dreams come true.

As an educational search consultant who has studied and worked on several leading campuses, I have a few key metrics that are worth paying attention to.

The cost of a future degree or program is often very important to students deciding where to go to college or graduate school. That said, many campuses that seem “out of reach” have incredibly generous financial aid that can mitigate that problem — or make them the best choice for the price-conscious consumer.

Don’t let the “before” aide price scare you. Instead, try to focus on the amounts people pay per year after aide is applied. Use tools like “MyinTuition” that can estimate your after-aid cost of attending more than thirty colleges. Other tools like the FAFSA Forecaster available with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid can forecast the amount of loans and grants you may qualify for from the Federal Government.

By using these tools and the “net price calculators” available on most college websites, you may find that seemingly “super-expensive” campuses will prove less pricey than options that, at first pass, seem less costly to you.

That said, what happens if tuition costs aren’t a primary concern, or you have several choices that cost about the same?

Here are some very helpful metrics that can predict how college may go for you. All can easily be researched online for the schools you are interested in.

Most can be summarized by what we might call the “resource-to-student ratio.” One is the faculty-to-student ratio. This is important because getting attention from faculty members who can help you with class matters, research opportunities, or ideas and projects that aren’t directly relevant to academics can be harder at a school with lots of students and relatively few faculty. On campuses with relatively more faculty and fewer students, professors — and the opportunities they offer — may be more practically and psychologically accessible.

Many large universities are proud of giving half of their undergraduates opportunities to do research with faculty members. In my experience, small-to-medium sized schools can often give every student who seeks opportunities of this sort the chance to work with faculty. I have also found that students often get paid work in labs far earlier at relatively small schools. As experience in research is highly valued by faculty making decisions about students wanting to get into many kinds of graduate and professional training, the value of a high faculty-to-student ratio becomes clear — even for the student who may be a “go-getter.”

Remember, even the most determined first-year student has to compete against others who are equally motivated. In larger schools, older students’ pre-existing competitive advantage in getting research opportunities in labs or field programs is even greater than it is in smaller ones. In smaller schools, younger students often benefit from the fact that it is easier to get the attention of faculty members because there aren’t as many people (of all ages) competing for it.

In fact, faculty research programs in smaller schools may specifically depend on undergraduates because they don’t have the numerous graduate students with their better training and tighter connections to professors that you often see on larger campuses.

The faculty-to-student ratio also impacts class size, much as it probably does in your local school district. Large classes can reduce student engagement. Scheduling lectures is also a problem. Some are now set at 7:30 AM, others end at 10PM. Colleges of all sizes now patch this gap with more and more instructors and part-time faculty who don’t always have the right to set course policy in response to student needs.

Discussion sections are integral to learning in these large lecture courses. A potentially significant concern with this is that the people who lead these small student-centered learning opportunities are often first-year graduate students, and sometimes even undergraduates, who know little more about the topic than the people required to attend these small-group discussions.

Is this sometimes a problem in schools with high faculty-to-student ratios? Absolutely! However, it is often a somewhat less common issue there.

The endowment-to-student ratio is another easily determined factor that can affect your success. Determining this can be important because high endowment-to-student ratios mean these campuses can try creative things or start new projects far more easily than schools with relatively few funds to spread around.

My own long experience on a variety of campuses suggests to me that if I’d been at a less wealthy school than I was as an undergraduate at Yale, and met someone like my friend Victor with whom I co-created technology that helped turn printed books into electronic text years before others were regularly doing this, getting the funding to make something like the “Yale Text Scanning System” happen might not have been possible.

A third key measure of the support and opportunities available on any campus is the staff-to-student ratio. A large staff can imply a bureaucratic rule-bound administration. It can also allow a creative, determined student to find ways around obstinate bureaucrats.

More importantly, it implies there are enough people around to ensure that someone will have the time to help before a minor problem becomes a major crisis.

That said, wherever you go, it’s important to be sure the staff provide honest, caring, useful, timely help — something you can learn by working with people like me, going on campus visits, and using student satisfaction websites.

All of this said, you can definitely get a great education at a school where these ratios are not fully in your favor. Very large schools often have unique departments or majors with incredible faculty and enormous resources. Wealthy but very small schools may not have facilities or experience in providing assistance to students with unusual interests or unconventional needs. Only you can define what success means to you.

Ultimately, only you, and those around you, can decide where you’ll find the resources, environment and campus culture that will give you the best chance to achieve your dreams. So, whether you use a college search consultant, work closely with your high-school counselor or simply spend a lot of time on the web, start looking early and don’t apply somewhere only because you know someone with ties to that campus.

Finally, as you make your selections and applications, if distance is a concern, please think about it as objectively as you can. College is a huge investment. Don’t let distance keep you from applying to campuses that are truly best for you if you can. Do whatever it takes to get the best balance of resources and access to them — without undercutting your role as a family caregiver, for example — that will help you have a better and more fulfilling educational experience and greater opportunities. In many cases, you may find it is better to go further than to stay close, struggle for attention, and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a program that doesn’t have everything you need to become the accomplished, successful, financially independent person in whom you are investing so much time, effort, money and hope.

In others, the best place for you to be may be only a few miles from where you grew up. Ultimately, only you can determine what school and campus environment will be best for you.

To learn more about Dr. Weed, see his website at www.drmatthewweed.com or follow him on twitter and Instagram @drmatthewweed

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Matthew Weed

Matthew Weed

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.