By Sharon Herzberger, President of Whittier College
September 6, 2010
"Mom, please don't ask so many questions this time."
So my younger son pleaded as we drove to visit colleges for the second time. Apparently I had caused him public humiliation as he explored the world of college admissions on a similar trip a few weeks before. As a college president and parent of two sons, I will admit, I tended to ask more questions than other parents, but only by a small margin.
On my numerous college trips I have noticed that whether it's during the information session or walking along the campus tour itself, parents are the ones who ask the most questions; they are the ones who seem genuinely interested in verbally examining all facets of college or university life. In contrast, the young people who are the intended college-goers seem to learn by absorption. They hear what is being said, but they focus just as much on the person saying it, the students walking the campus, and the look and feel of the place. They begin to get an instinctual impression of "fit."
I am here to tell you, parents, to keep asking those questions. College is a major investment of time and finances, and you and your son or daughter should feel as comfortable and confident as possible as you commit to an institution. So, even if your offspring is rolling his or her eyes or lagging behind as you venture up to talk with the tour guide, fire away. In my opinion, when it comes down to making sure that a certain college will be the correct investment for your child, reading the college rankings is not the way to ensure the right choice.
Just as every student has his or her own personality, each college has a unique character as well. You can learn more about colleges that are in your preferred geographical area, offer a certain major, or are perhaps the right size, by visiting the campuses in which you and your child are interested. Additionally, in some cases you can make a virtual campus visit and chat with admissions officers via e-mail.
And let me provide some hints to help with the process of discernment. First, walk the campus before or after your formal tour and talk to students. Find a group of seniors and ask each of them how many professors they know well enough to write an in-depth letter of recommendation for them. Not the kind of recommendation that states "Johnny was in my class and earned an A," but the kind that communicates to the reader that this professor knows this graduate's strengths and weaknesses and can be trusted as a referee. One day, before you know it, your child will need these letters, and institutions differ in the kind of education that will provide the faculty-student relationships to produce them.
Second, ask a pro at the admissions office whether the college or university participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) or in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), and if so, ask to see the results. Schools that do participate care about measuring such things as how much their students write, how much they participate in class, and many other important things that predict intellectual and personal growth in college.
Finally, as absurd as it might sound, ask the following: "On average, how long does it take to get a four-year degree?" Most private colleges build their curriculums and hire sufficient faculty to make it very likely that students will earn a four-year degree in - fanfare please - four years. You will be surprised to learn that at many public institutions students now count on taking five or even six years to get the classes they need to graduate. As you evaluate the cost of colleges and you look to your future earning potential, the extra time and expense matters.
The bottom line, parents: question, question, question! If our sons and daughters are embarrassed, have them wait in the car.
This Op-Ed first appeared in the "San Gabriel Valley Tribune."