Episode 95: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 3

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

In our last two episodes, we have been talking with you about how to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options in case it is too long. As that list begins to get shorter, I am beginning to feel as though we should have let you keep it long. Well, not crazy long–but 15 colleges or so is still reasonable to me, at this point in the process. As we have said before, there are quite a few colleges out there that would likely be a good match for your teenager. Don’t feel that you need to take colleges off the list if you can imagine your teenager’s being happy there. You should not be aiming for some arbitrary number of options.

Again, let us remind you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Fill it out and file it now. Get whatever help you need to fill it out. But do it, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.

And, let us remind you again, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are coming up quickly–mostly around November 1. I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in offer it.

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list by looking at college selectivity–in other words, is your teenager likely to get in. In Episode 94, we took Step 2 by looking at the availability of your teenager’s current favorite major, the presence of any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and the attractiveness of traditional and innovative college term schedules or grading practices.

1. Step 3: College Enrollment Filter

Today, we are discussing Step 3 in narrowing down the list–if you think it needs to be narrowed down any further–and that is using college enrollment as a filter. In our previous episodes, we have looked at college enrollment in a variety of ways, and you might want to use some of those ways as a filter now.

First, does the size of the student body matter? You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the size of the undergraduate enrollment (and the graduate enrollment, if you think it is desirable to send your teenager to a college that also offers graduate study). Personally (and I think I might be alone in this attitude), I think that this filter is over-used by lots of teenagers and their parents.   I hear kids say things like this, “I think I would like to go to a small school. (Fill in the blank) university seems too big to me.” Okay, I get it. A big university might seem overwhelming at first to a high school senior. But perhaps that is because that teenager has had no reason at all to be in a large university setting, and I believe that a teenager has no rational basis for making a valid judgment about it.

Furthermore, I don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school, though I am sure it is tempting. I can understand that a teenager coming from a small public high school or a small private school might feel that he or she would get lost in the shuffle in a large university. I can understand that, for such a teenager, a large academic setting might be outside his or her 17-year-old comfort zone. But that is no reason to assume that such a teenager would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance.

When my husband was applying to college many years ago, his parents thought that he should go to a small liberal arts college. I am not sure why they thought that, but they did. As a result, he applied only to good small liberal arts colleges, and so, of course, he ended up attending one. He did well at it and liked it, but I believe he would have done equally well at a large university and would have liked it equally well. (By the way, he went on to Columbia University for graduate school and did not seem one bit fazed by its size.) In other words, size should never have been a filter for him–and I believe it should not be a filter for most teenagers. My guess is that many of you parents have some intuitive feeling about the best college size for your teenager (just as my in-laws did)–let’s call it a bias. I don’t know where you got it–perhaps from your own college education or from your own view about how outgoing and self-sufficient your teenager is or isn’t. Unless you have some kind of actual evidence that you are right, you might want to think twice about using college size as a filter for taking colleges off your teenager’s list.

Second, let’s look at size a different way, as we did in Assignment #5 (in Episode 85). There we took a closer look at both student-to-faculty ratio and class size (that is, how many students are sitting in the classroom when your teenager is trying to learn organic chemistry). As we said in Episode 85, student-to-faculty ratios are usually lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. Further, when you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressed. And I have to admit that there might indeed be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of, say, 18-to-1. If personal attention from and personal relationships with professors is something that is quite important to you or your teenager, you might want to think about a student-to-faculty ratio filter.

Let’s recap the class size discussion we had where I claimed that class size might just be a matter of personal choice. I said that I had preferred large classes in collegehuge lectures by a brilliant professor. But I allowed that many students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. What I truly believe is that there is a good chance that your teenager doesn’t know which of these he or she would prefersince most high school students have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors, or indeed small seminars that are intellectually demanding, for that matter. Does that make it difficult to choose class size as a filter? I would say that it does.

So far, it seems that I am arguing against a lot of these filters. All of these characteristics of colleges are good information to have, but maybe aren’t necessarily filters to use before even applying. Maybe I just hate for you to rule out too many options before you see where your teenager might be accepted and what decisions might be available to him or her next spring.

Let’s try a third filter, and that is whether the breakdown of the student body matters. You can look back at summer Assignment #4 (in Episode 84) and double check the percentage of part-time vs. full-time students, the male-female split, the variety and size of various racial and ethnic groups, and the states or foreign countries that students come from. For many students, none of these might be necessary as filters. However, your teenager might have some thoughts about attending a college where his or her own racial or ethnic group is only a very small minority of students. Or, your teenager might not want to attend a college that does not have a substantial mix of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as from many states and foreign countries. Attitudes about the inclusivity of students of all backgrounds might be linked strongly to your values as a family. Or not. Is your teenager more comfortable with students like himself or herself or with students just from your own geographic area? Should he or she be?

Now is the time to have that discussion with your teenager and to remember that college is one great time to broaden his or her views and explore key values about diversity. While you are doing that, take a quick look back at Assignment #10 (in Episode 90) to see whether you want to re-think your decision to include HBCUs, HSIs, single-sex colleges, or faith-based colleges on your list or to eliminate them at this time. Some of these colleges obviously offer less diversity than others, though they serve a different and perhaps equally valuable purpose.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, are you losing any colleges from your teenager’s list, based on filtering for overall enrollment size, the class size or student-to-faculty ratio, or the breakdown of the student body by race, ethnicity, gender, or some other important demographic characteristic? Try to let your teenager talk through his or her opinions about each of these, but let your teenager know that none of these has to become a filter.

In one sense, the fewer filters, the better. Each filter gives your teenager fewer chances to be happy next April.

So, Step 3 is done. Enrollment breakdown and size have been considered. Did you lose any colleges from your teenager’s list? I’m okay if you still have 15 or so on the list as we move forward to Step 4 next week. If you are already down to just a handful of colleges, you might want to take a few Steps back and reconsider some of those colleges that you have lost.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Download this episode!

Episode 85: Assignment #5–Looking at College Size

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Four assignments down and several yet to go in this summer college search process that we hope you are undertaking with us. We hope that your teenager and you are learning a lot about colleges in general and a lot about the colleges that are on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. We hope that your teenager’s list is still longbecause there is plenty of time to shorten it after September comes.

Episode 85 Looking at College Size on USACollegeChat podcast

To recap, in your first four assignments, you have expanded your teenager’s long summer list of college optionsfor now, anyway. You have checked out four key admission standards for the colleges on that listnamely, average high school GPA, high school class rank, SAT or ACT scores of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen, and both required and recommended courses to be completed in high school. You have also looked at each college’s undergraduate enrollment, broken down by part-time vs. full-time study, gender, race/ethnicity, and place of residence. That’s a lot of information, but we believe we can add a couple more pieces of data that might affect what your teenager and you think about a college.

As we have said before, get your teenager to do this research assignment. But if you want to help, feel free to do so.

1. Your Assignment #5

Download the Assignment #5 Worksheet

In this episode, we will look further into the size of each of the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college optionsthat is, size in terms of enrollment, not in terms of physical campus area. We want to examine two specific aspects of sizethings that you might not think about right off the bat.

You will recall in Assignment #1, you had to fill in the undergraduate enrollment of each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. Then, in Assignment #4, you looked at that enrollment by the characteristics of the students themselves. Today, we want to look at how the enrollment is distributed into the actual classrooms and seminar rooms and labs that students sit in on campus and how it might affect your teenager’s relationships with his or her professors.

2. Student-to-Faculty Ratio

Again, let me recommend that your teenager look to College Navigator, the impressive online search tool provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, for finding out this first statistic we are going to talk about. Let me say that sometimes you can also find this statistic on a college’s own website, often on the “Quick Facts” or “At a Glance” or similar page. During our nationwide virtual college tour (Episodes 27 through 53) here at USACollegeChat, I spent loads of time looking for this statistic and not finding it on individual college websitesonly to discover now that it was right there at College Navigator all along. This is a statistic that we mentioned very often during our virtual tour, and we know that it is one that colleges themselves are often very proud of. It is student-to-faculty ratioin other words, how many students are there for each faculty member.

So, what is the big deal about student-to-faculty ratio? It is this: Most people believe that a student’s education is improved if he or she has more access to faculty members in smaller classes (more about that in a minute), during less crowded office hours, and in more chances to meet up outside of class and office hours to discuss things or take part in activities of some sort together or develop a professional relationship or mentorship of some kind, and so on. Most people believe that faculty members can and will give each student enough time and attention if they are not spread too thin over too many students. Hence, a student-to-faculty ratio should be as low as possible, ideally in single digits or low double digits, like 10-to-1.

Let me be the first to say that I actually don’t know if this is true, though it certainly seems to be logical. I also don’t know how valuable a low student-to-faculty ratio is for students who are not particularly looking for this kind of personal relationship with faculty members. I went to Cornell University, a large Ivy League university, where I did not have a close relationship with virtually any of my professors. The only one I probably ever spoke to outside of a formal class setting was the great historian Michael Kammen, who autographed a copy of his Pulitzer Prize winner for me and who realized, when he thought about my name, that he read my sports articles with my byline in The Cornell Daily Sun. I admired many of my professors, including Professor Kammen, but I really didn’t feel the need for more attention from any of them.

So, I am the perfect candidate for a college with an unimpressive student-to-faculty ratio. However, if your teenager would benefit from a closer, perhaps more nurturing connection to his or her professors, then checking out the student-to-faculty ratio makes sense for your family. Or, if you would feel better knowing that there is a greater chance that a faculty member knows and is looking out for your teenager, then looking for that low student-to-faculty ratio is important.

Generally speaking, student-to-faculty ratios are lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. For example, you have Amherst College at 8-to-1, Vassar College at 8-to-1, Reed College at 9-to1, Hamilton College at 9-to1, Colorado College at 10-to-1, and so on. And, if I read you a list of good public flagship universities, those ratios might be more like 16- or 17- or 18-to-1.

When you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressedlike Rice University‘s 6-to-1 or Duke University‘s 7-to-1. Though perhaps the most interesting is California Institute of Technology (commonly known as Caltech), with a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1so low a ratio that it is virtually unbelievable. A low ratio might make that private university a more attractive choice for your teenager and youand probably a more expensive choice. But that’s your call.

I do want to add that I suspect that these ratios are not calculated exactly the same way from college to college, regardless of what anyone claims. I also imagine that the ratio is a lot harder to calculate for a large university with, say, 12 schools and colleges in it, which likely have different student-to-faculty ratios; in that case, one student-to-faculty ratio doesn’t even make much sense. In fairness to College Navigator, colleges do get directions for completing the standard data collection forms. And, if you were wondering, student-to-faculty ratio is supposed to exclude both students and faculty in what we would think of as professional programs that are solely for graduate studentslike medicine, law, social work, or public health. So, NCES is trying to make the ratios sensible and comparable from college to college.

The bottom line is this: I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on the difference between a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and 10-to-1 or even 11-to-1. Rather consider that there might, however, be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of 18-to-1.

Have your teenager do the necessary college searches and write down the student-to-faculty ratio on the Assignment #5 worksheet. Get it from College Navigator; or, if you are curious, take a look at a college’s own website to see what the college is advertising.

3. Class Size

Watch our Facebook Live video on class size for more perspectives.

Class size is exactly what you think it ishow many students are in the classroom when your teenager is trying to learn calculus. Some colleges are very proud of their small class sizes, and some others that think they don’t have that much to be proud of in this regard do the best they can to make a good case for their own class sizes. This information is not on College Navigator (at least not that I could find). But you can find this information on many, many college websites, though you might have to look around a bit.

For example, here is what you will read under “Quick Facts” on St. John’s College‘s website: “Seminars have between 17 [and] 19 students, led by two faculty members. Tutorials (mathematics, language, and music) and laboratory sessions have 12 to 16 students, led by one faculty member.” That is believable, given that St. John’s (with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe) is a super-small and super-intriguing college (with about 450 to 475 students on each campus). Those classes are a lot smaller than many, many classes would be at a large university.

On the website of the College of William & Mary (a prestigious public college of about 6,300 undergraduates and 2,200 graduate students in Virginia), you can find this statement under “W&M At a Glance”: “84 percent of courses have fewer than 40 students.” Clearly, William & Mary thinks that is worth advertising, though it is quite different from what St. John’s advertises.

Or, on other websites, you can look for the “common data set” and check out a display of class section sizes under “I. Instructional Faculty and Class Size” (by the way, you will also find student-to-faculty ratios here). You can see how many class sections have 2-9 students, 10-19 students, 20-29 students, 30-39 students, 40-49 students, 50-59 students, and all the way to 100+ students. There are also subsections displayedthat is, the supplementary tutorials and labs, for example.

But again, class size is a matter of personal choice. Frankly, I preferred large classeshuge lectures by a brilliant professor. But many students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. There is also a good chance that your teenager doesn’t know which of these he or she would prefersince most high school students have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors. Nonetheless, the topic of class size is something you should think about and talk about with your teenager before you start narrowing down your list of college options.

For now, have your teenager do the necessary college searches and jot down whatever claims each college is making about class sizeif any. Or take a look at the common data set on each college’s website and get the figures there.

Download the Assignment #5 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Download this episode!