Ask These Questions to Maximize Your Odds of an Optimal College Experience: Part 2 of 3

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The more questions you ask when determining which colleges may be best for you to apply to — and hopefully attend — the better. This is the second set of questions I always encourage people to ask. The first set is up already, the third will be up soon.

Given technology today, you can answer many of these questions yourself by looking at college websites or large college review sites. Remember, though, that college websites are meant to sell you on going there and college review sites aren’t always sufficiently detailed. In many cases, getting advice from college counselors, parents, teachers and others in your community will help clarify your needs and choices. Ultimately, knowing who you are and what you hope to get from your college experience will guide you and the people who are advising you in your search for places to apply and — assuming you get several offers of admission — where may be best for you to go.

This second set of questions focuses on what might be called “resource” factors on and around campus that can impact your experience and ability to succeed.

1. What resources are there on campus to help me when I have problems? Everyone will have tough times in college. You may get sick, Covid-19 may still be impacting us, you could have issues at home, you may have financial problems, you may break up with your long time SO, or you may fail every midterm your first semester. Most good colleges have advising, assistance, and health resources to help you get through these situations. Their presence and quality — and your willingness to use them! — may be the difference between success and failure in achieving your goals.

2. What is the ratio between undergraduates and tenure or tenure track faculty? Colleges often say they have a faculty-to-student ratio of X. Some colleges only count their full-time professors in reporting the number of professors they have. Others include the hundreds of part-time or “contingent” faculty who may do a great deal of the instruction. Whatever reporting method they use, they do their best to make it look like there are lots of people around who know the place well and can act as top-flight teachers, advisers or mentors for you even though you may be taught by people the campus doesn’t consider “real” faculty.

Unfortunately, term or part-time instructors are often less willing or able to carry out many academic functions than tenure or tenure track faculty. Term instructors may also be less able to help you find summer jobs or other opportunities. Because they may well be looking for jobs themselves, they are less likely to be able to invest the time in either your coursework or in assisting you with your longer-term academic and professional needs. If you are a first-generation student, the availability of mentoring may be very important to you because we are learning that the more support first generation students have in particular, the more likely they are to graduate from college.

Another concern with term faculty is that they are also frequently unable to act on or advocate for, course or campus policy. If you have ideas or initiatives you want to start, tenure or tenure track faculty are most likely to have the power and institutional longevity needed to help you push things through.

Term faculty can also disappear at a moment’s notice if they get a better offer…. or if the college simply decides that they aren’t needed next term.

3. How much course time is taught by tenure or tenure track faculty relative to that taught by graduate students or term instructors? We’ve touched on the possible concerns with term instructors already. Some are excellent but many teach on a term basis because they haven’t earned a tenure track spot either at that college or others around the country. Courses at a very large number of schools are taught at least in part by people who aren’t yet experts in their fields. In many cases, graduate students lead discussion sections because they are being paid to learn their subject. They are also being paid to learn how to teach. You will want to decide whether you’re willing to pay a portion of your tuition and fees to be taught by people who are not yet fully trained in their fields as well as being relatively inexperienced teachers. Undergraduate teaching assistants may grade your papers or help run your labs. Hopefully they know what they’re doing but they may not.

College fairs, (whether done on line or in person when those become possible again), emailed questions, and responses to college blogs etc., can all help you learn how instruction and grading are divided amongst full or tenure track faculty, term instructors, graduate students and undergraduate teaching assistants. If you can, ask any questions you have before you apply — and definitely before you decide where to go once you know what your choices are.

Whether you get satisfactory answers to your questions or not should help you decide whether that campus deserves your time, energy, and money.

4. What percentage of instruction time is scheduled outside of the “normal” day? In many schools, a significant percentage of the time you spend learning may be outside of the regular working day. If you don’t do well with getting up early or if you’re nervous about traveling to and from class when it’s dark out at night, this may be something you want to pay close attention to.

Questions like these are still important to ask with Covid-19 potentially still affecting colleges next fall. After all, taking a class at 7:30 PM Pacific Time when you are on the east coast or even further away may not be great for you — similar issues may hold if you’ve got a morning seminar at a college in Massachusetts and you’re living in Hawaii or Asia.

5. What is the staff-to-student ratio? Much as with faculty, the more staff there is on campus relative to the number of students, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find someone who can help you with problems or support you in initiatives. Advisors, health professionals, information technology staff, and more get stretched just like faculty, particularly at times like midterms and finals when you, too, are under maximum stress. If you can’t access help when you need it, your own stressful times will be harder to manage than on a campus where a relatively high staff-to-student ratio makes advice and support relatively available at all times of the year.

One question you should try to get answered is how much independence people on campus have where making policy is concerned. A campus could have a one-to-one staff-to-student ratio but if the upper administration doesn’t give junior staff some power to make decisions, that enormous staff may prove less helpful than one might hope.

6. What is the overall resource-to-student ratio? This is a complicated question. Faculty- and staff-to-student ratios are only part of this. How big the endowment is relative to the student population is another factor. The endowment is a key measure of the resources the college or university has for new and exciting initiatives as well as for the extra spending that Covid-19 may still require of every college in America next fall. The endowment-to-student ratio is an easily compared measure of just how much those resources are stretched across the entire campus. These ratios also affect how much classroom space there is and how easy it may be to access on-campus resources like theaters, music practice spaces, art or language labs, etc. We can hope and expect that sooner or later, colleges will return to offering all in-person classes. When this happens, the answers you get on these questions will matter again where the shape of your education will be concerned, just as they are making or breaking many colleges right now.

IN SUMMARY, you can compare campuses objectively. These comparisons can tell you a great deal. By looking at the ratios of students-to-factors like the number of tenure or tenure track faculty, research opportunities, endowment, staff, health resources etc., you can set up a comparison table for the schools you are applying to. It won’t be perfect because your particular interests or the programs you will depend on most may be extremely well — or poorly — endowed, even on a campus with relatively many or few total resources. Even so, collecting this data should be very helpful in determining which colleges may fit your needs and goals best.

Given the amount you may pay for your education, answering all of these questions is very important. Colleges are different. The answers you get to these questions will be different and affect your opinion on all of the schools you’re considering. Part Three of this series will be up soon.

Learn more about Dr. Matthew Weed at drmatthewweed.com. Schedule with him there if you would like personalized attention. You can also learn more about him by following @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.

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