Episode 169: Why the College’s Enrollment Matters

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Today we are going to talk about Step 6 of your kid’s summer homework, as explained in our episodes throughout the summer and also more elaborately in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students.  So, order a workbook from Amazon for your son or daughter if you want the longer version and the actual worksheets.

We are up to Questions 8 through 16 on the College Profile Worksheet this week as your kid answers nine questions about student enrollment at each college on his or her Long List of College Options (or LLCO, for short).  The questions are about how many students are enrolled and what their personal characteristics are.

By the way, it occurs to me that your kid could be following along with us and doing the “questions of the week” for each college on the LLCO, but that means that he or she is going back to each college website or College Navigator profile every week as new questions are posed.  That seems a bit inefficient.  On the other hand, when your son or daughter gets accustomed to finding information on a college website or on College Navigator about a certain topic, it might turn out to be efficient to find that information in a similar place on each website or in each College Navigator profile–thus, making the whole process not really so inefficient as it seems.  Of course, you could advise your kid to do some of each:  Go along with us each week for a handful of colleges to make sure it is clear what to do and then, at the end of the summer, go back and finish up the other colleges by doing all of the questions for one college at a time with only one trip to the website and College Navigator profile.  That’s your family’s call.

With that said, although today’s Questions 8 through 16 on the College Profile Worksheet can be answered from a college’s website (especially by looking at the common data set), we think that it is actually easier to get most of the answers by using a college’s profile at College Navigator.  You might think that enrollment is just a matter of a number or two, but you are going to see that there’s a lot more to think about here.

1. Number of Undergraduate Students

Let’s start with the obvious:  number of undergraduate students.  This is what we explained to kids (though the workbook provides additional detail about exactly where to find the right numbers):

Here is one very important thing to remember when you are jotting down undergraduate enrollment for each of the colleges on your LLCO:  Be consistent about what statistic you use.  For example, some colleges include part-time and full-time students in their enrollment count; others separate them.  Sometimes, it is hard to know what students are included.  Ideally, you should use numbers that mean the same thing from college to college so that you can compare the sizes of the undergraduate student body as accurately as possible.

Our vote for where to find that undergraduate enrollment number is College Navigator.  After you search for your college, you will see many categories of data that are available.  Click on Enrollment.  You will refer to this category a lot as you fill out this section of the College Profile Worksheet.

Under Enrollment, you will notice that the figures are probably for the fall of the preceding school year.  Those figures are fine to use, because most colleges do not have huge enrollment changes from year to year.

Question 8 asks students to jot down the undergraduate enrollment of the college.  That’s the easy part.  Here is what we said about my personal pet peeve in judging the size of that undergraduate enrollment:

Eventually, you will have to consider whether the size of the undergraduate student body matters to you.  We think that this issue is given too much weight by many high school students and their parents.  We often hear kids say things like this:  “I think I would like to go to a small school.  The University of (fill in the blank) seems too big to me.”  Of course, a big university might seem overwhelming to a high school senior.  But perhaps that is because most high school seniors have spent no time at all in a large university setting.  We believe that most high school seniors have no rational basis for making a valid judgment about student body size.

And, although it is tempting, we don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school.  If you are coming from a small public high school or a small private school, we understand that you might feel that you would get lost in the shuffle of a large university.  We understand that, for you right now, a large academic setting might be outside your 17-year-old comfort zone.  But that is no reason to assume that you would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance a year from now.

Not a year goes by that I don’t hear remarks like that from students I am counseling individually; and, most of the time, they admit their short-sightedness after I talk them through the argument in the workbook.  So, parents, do the same for your kid.  By the way, parents, sometimes you are the biggest offenders here by imposing your own prejudices about size on your kids.

2. Breakdown by Enrollment Status and Demographics

Often, however, you will find that the types of students at a college are more important the number of them.  Let’s look at a few categories of student enrollment.  These figures are provided in various ways in the College Navigator college profiles in the Enrollment category, including in very-easy-to-understand color-coded pie graphs/pie charts/circle graphs (the workbook tells your kid exactly how to identify which figures to use and offers examples of colleges with various patterns of enrollment).

Here are the breakdowns we suggest that your son or daughter and you consider:

Question 9:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by full-time vs. part-time attendance

Some colleges–especially prestigious private four-year colleges–have relatively few part-time students compared to, say, large public universities with many schools and many diverse programs. . . .

Part-time students are not worse students; however, part-time students do likely lead fuller, more complicated, more off-campus lives than traditional freshmen enrolling right out of high school, especially if those freshmen are living on campus.  As a result, colleges with high part-time enrollment might have a bit of a different feel on campus compared to colleges where almost all of the students are there full time (and, especially, where many of them are living on campus in residential housing).  It’s something to consider.

Question 10:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by gender and any other gender identity information or policies found on the college website or in discussion with the Admission Office

Unless you have been talking about going to a single-sex college, this statistic might not even be on your radar screen.  Nonetheless, it might be something worth thinking about.

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent).  Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). . .

We should note here that we have not yet seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female.  However, if you are looking for a college that is particularly accepting of more diverse gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by looking further on the college’s website and by calling the Admission Office and asking about relevant data and policies.

Question 11:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by race/ethnicity

Unless you have been talking about going to an HBCU or about seeking out an HSI, you might not have been thinking hard about the racial or ethnic background of students at the colleges on your LLCO.  But it might be something worth considering, depending on your comfort level with members of other racial and ethnic groups in an education setting.  For example, if you attend a racially and ethnically mixed high school, you would likely feel comfortable in a similar sort of college population.  However, if you attend a high school that is not racially and ethnically diverse, it might be even more important to find a college that is–in order to prepare yourself better for the world of work and for life.

We have talked about the racial and ethnic diversity of colleges in our podcast episodes, and we noted that some colleges are not nearly as diverse as we would have guessed they were.  For example, we looked at a geographically diverse sample of nine large and small public flagships, some highly selective and others less selective.  The percentage of black students ranged from just 2 percent to 15 percent.  The Hispanic/Latino numbers ranged from just 3 percent to 10 percent.

On the other hand, we know quite a few very selective private colleges and universities where the percentages of black and Hispanic/Latino students exceed these public university numbers.  That is worth thinking about–whether you are black or Hispanic/Latino yourself or whether you simply want to attend a college with a diverse student population.

Question 12:  The breakdown of undergraduate students by student residence and any other interesting facts on the college website about where its students come from

It is useful, we think, to see just how many undergraduate students at a college are from the state where that college is located.  Generally, we believe it is better to go to a college where you will meet students from all over–all over the U.S., but also from all over the world.  Living and working with students of many national backgrounds in a relatively safe and protected environment, like a college, is one way for you to gain the interpersonal skills you will need for a lifetime.

As we have said before, almost all colleges like the idea of having students from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world.  Many, many colleges proudly say on their websites how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from.  While public universities have a duty to serve the students of their own state, even they like to draw students from other states and other countries.  And remember that you might get into a college far away from home that your grades and test scores and activities could not get you into close to home–because, for that faraway college, you bring desirable geographic diversity.  Think about that.

In case you are wondering, a college’s own website will often break down enrollment even further than College Navigator to give you additional facts, like the five states sending the most undergraduate students or the most new freshmen or the percent of students who come from neighboring states or who come from the region the college is located in.  All of that might be food for thought as you review colleges on your LLCO.

Question 13:  Any interesting information about support services targeted for particular groups of students, especially if you are a member of that group

While support services–like academic advising, personal counseling, and employment assistance–can be useful to any undergraduate student, these support services are often particularly important to groups of students who might find it more difficult to adjust to college life, either socially or academically, especially when they find themselves in the minority of students on a college campus.

If you identify with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, or another group, you should take a look at whether each college on your LLCO has support services targeted for you. . . . Why?  Because successful support services can make all the difference between dropping out and graduating.

Question 14:  The retention rate for full-time students who returned to the college for a second year

Retention rate tells you what percent of freshmen come back to the college the next year as sophomores.  In other words, it tells you how well the college keeps its students coming back for more.

There are many reasons that kids leave college between their first and second years, and some of those reasons are certainly beyond a college’s control.  Nonetheless, you probably want to be looking for colleges with a high retention rate–at least 80 percent or better.  Many top-ranked colleges will post a retention rate above 90 percent.

Question 15:  The 4-year and 6-year graduation rates for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees

Graduation rate is exactly what you think–the percent of students who actually graduated from the college.  But there is a lot more detail available in College Navigator than you will ever need to know.

Obviously, we all hope that you will get out of college four years after you start, even though many students don’t do that anymore.  We hope that, and you probably hope that.  But your parents really hope that.  Not getting out in four years will run up your college costs even higher than they are already going to be.  You need to stay focused and get out of college in four years.

The higher the 4-year graduation rates are, the better.  Rates over 80 percent are good, though they might be lower in big universities, especially public ones.  So, judge accordingly.

Question 16:  The graduate enrollment of the college

Whether a college (or, more often, a university) has graduate students at all is an important aspect of choosing a college for some students.  Some students and parents like the idea of advanced scholarship being available on campus and of professional schools (like law and medicine and journalism) being right there–either to add prestige generally or to serve as motivation or even the next stop for a successful undergrad.  On the other hand, some parents and even some college professors think that graduate students distract a college from paying adequate attention to the needs and education of the undergraduates; they also feel that too many graduate students (rather than college professors) end up teaching the freshman-level courses in too many disciplines.

Well, Questions 8 through 16 are a lot to think about.  It was a big week.  If you haven’t done that much thinking for each college on your LLCO, you aren’t ready to decide where to apply.  But don’t worry.  There are 36 questions still to go!  Plenty of time to think?

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