“Big Data” can Help you Decide What Colleges to Apply to

By Matthew A. Weed, Ph.D.

Contact: matthewweedconsults@gmail.com or www.drmatthewweed.com

Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

We are entering exciting and scary times for people applying to colleges this year. Most are madly researching to try to decide where to apply. Some of this research requires campus visits — whether virtual or in person. Some doesn’t. Fortunately, there is a tool that can help you compare campuses objectively that I always encourage people to use.

This, of course, is “Big Data” which has become an important watch word in all phases of society. It shapes research in healthcare, politics, and economics, for example. It can also help you decide what campus will fit you best.

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.

Obviously, the cost of a future degree or program is very important. That said, many campuses that seem “out of reach” have incredibly generous financial aid that can mitigate that problem — often making them the best choice for the price-conscious consumer once it has been factored in.

Most colleges offer net price calculators that will give you a solid sense for how much it will cost you to attend there. Unfortunately, you will generally need to reenter your data for each college.

That said, one truly excellent resource is now helping people make estimates for nearly 70 leading colleges like Caltech, Harvard, Smith, UMass, and Yale.

Don’t let the “before” aide price scare you before making your decision to apply. At least one private liberal arts college claims that up to ninety percent of families will pay less for someone to go there than they would pay if they studied at their state’s flagship public campus. Others make similar claims.

With the total cost of college debt going up across the board, doing your research now can make a huge difference in your life later.

Speaking of research, its not only important to know what the actual cost to you of going to a college will be. Its also important to have a sense for what that money will buy you with respect to your ability to access future opportunities like advanced training and high paying work may be.

There are innumerable resources out there to help you think these things through. One such resource for students interested in going to medical school someday is the American Association of Medical Colleges’ Medical School Admissions Requirements publication. The MSAR can help you see what level of performance you’ll need to have a realistic chance of getting into medical school.

The MSAR is behind a paywall. You may need to go to a library to access it for free, but along with admissions requirements data, the MSAR also shows the percentage of students who get into MD programs from hundreds of colleges around the world.

If you’re wondering what the average salary for degrees you’re interested in is likely to be, Bankrate has a great data set for 159 majors from art to Architectural Engineering that covers this, as well as the employment rates for these majors after graduation and what percentage of people in these disciplines need advanced training in order to be truly competitive in their careers.

Before you get a job, though, you need to get through and complete college. Here are some very helpful metrics that can help you decide what kinds and sizes of campuses may be best for you. All are easily accessible online.

Most can be summarized by what we might call the “resource-to-student ratio.” i.e., the amount of campus resources compared to the number of students on campus. At least three sub-ratios are worth paying attention to: The faculty-to-student ratio, the staff-to-student ratio and the endowment-to-student ratio.

These things and many more can be found in a variety of ways. Most publications show you the data the colleges either sent them or made available to everyone through responses to a yearly request for information created by the so-called “common data set” initiative.

Unfortunately, there is no tool that compares the raw responses sent into the Common Data Set initiative that isn’t shaped by the ranking formulae that the various publications use when setting up their tables. This means that whatever ranking you use will depend on the editorial bias of the people who created it.

That said, if you have schools you’re considering, you can always search for “common data set” plus the name of the school you’re interested in. Doing so should lead you to their responses if they made them available. You can then use the three measures below plus the vast amount of other data schools put into their “common data set” responses, to determine what schools you think might have the best mixes of resources and opportunities for you to succeed.

The first of these key measures is the faculty-to-student ratio. The faculty-to-student ratio is important because getting attention from faculty members who you can expect to be on campus long-term is important because these are the people you can be fairly sure to have access to for opportunities and advice during your full time there.

Connecting with professors who will be available to you for your full time on a campus can be much much harder at schools with relatively low faculty-to-student ratios, particularly those campuses with low ratios of faculty who are either tenured or on the tenure track than it will be on a campus where there are relatively few students as compared with the number of faculty working there.

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 undergraduate’s 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. As research is often considered essential for students wanting to get into advanced 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 must compete against others who are equally motivated. In larger schools sheer numbers mean that many older students may have greater experience or better faculty contacts than almost any first-year can because they have been there longer.

The faculty-to-student ratio also affects 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 aren’t sure to be there long term and 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 their students.

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

The endowment-to-student ratio is a second easily determined factor that can affect your success. Discovering this information is important because endowment-to-student ratios are direct evidence of the ease with which a school can try creative things or start new projects.

Campuses and programs with high endowment-to-student ratios are objectively able to be creative in who and what they support in ways schools with relatively few funds to spread around often can’t.

For example, schools and programs with high endowment to student ratios are likely to have better resources for financial aid.

My own long experience on six different campuses suggests to me that if I’d been at a less wealthy school than I was as an undergraduate at Yale, where I met my friend Victor with whom I co-created technology that helped turn printed books into electronic text that blind students’ computers could read to them out loud years before most people were regularly doing this, getting the funding that let us bring the “Yale Text Scanning System” into being might have taken many more years than it did for us in 1990.

The staff-to-student ratio is a third key measure of the support and opportunities available on any campus. A large staff can imply a bureaucratic and inefficient administration. It can also mean that ways can be found around bureaucratic knots for the creative, hard-working student who refuses to take “no” for an answer. More importantly, it implies there are enough people around to help ensure you 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, useful, caring, 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 experience in providing assistance to students with unconventional needs. Only you — and your advisors — can know what you will need to succeed.

Finally, as you make your selections and applications, if distance is a concern, please think about it as objectively as possible. 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 and find the resources, people and opportunities that will help you most, than it is to stay close, struggle for attention, and spend tens of thousands of your hard-earned dollars on a program that doesn’t have everything you need to become the accomplished, successful, financially independent adult in whom you are investing so much money, time and hope.

If you have questions about any of this, please feel free to reach out to me via my website for a free half hour introductory consultation that can, if you like, lead to further conversations that may, literally, save you tens of thousands of dollars in time, energy and effort that you can better put into achieving your long-term happiness and improving your chances to make your future the way you want it to be.

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Matthew Weed

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