Skip to main content

Sonoma Family Life Magazine

The Right Questions to Ask a Prospective College

By Louis E. Newman

Right now hundreds of thousands of graduating high school seniors are weighing their college options. For many, it’s an intensely stressful time as they are rejected or waitlisted, and decide where they will spend the next four years of their lives. Unfortunately, most will base those decisions on criteria that don’t actually affect the quality of their education and will ignore the criteria that do.

Don’t let the brochures fool you. Choosing a college is not like choosing a product to purchase, though students regularly approach the decision with a consumer’s mindset. There is no Consumer Reports to rely on. So a school’s reputation, glitzy admissions materials, student housing amenities, impressive recreational facilities, and campus tours often unduly influence students and parents, even though none of these things are related to the quality of education an institution offers.

Ditch one-size-fits-all assessments. Many people follow US News and World Reports ratings, but they are misleading at best. Why? They base their rankings on inconsistently reported data and on the subjective impressions of college presidents and senior administrators. More fundamentally, the rankings falsely suggest that a single assessment scale is equally applicable to all students. In reality, students have a range of priorities and values, as the recently introduced New York Times selection tool, which searches on a range of criteria, recognizes. This is far more useful.

Be aware of what class visits can and cannot tell you. Sampling a class or two may seem like a good idea, but it tells potential students virtually nothing meaningful. As every teacher knows, there are good days and bad days in every course. What a prospective student experiences during a single visit is not generalizable to the course as a whole, much less to the entire school. But there are metrics that matter, and it’s worth knowing what they are. 

Find out about the faculty. How much time do faculty members devote to teaching and how available are they? Is there a Center for Learning and Teaching to nurture young faculty and keep senior faculty from growing stale, and do faculty avail themselves of its programs? How do faculty rank the support they receive from their institution, as measured by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey? Choose a college where faculty feel supported and respected by the administration.

Investigate student culture and the quality of learning. For each school you are considering, ask the Admissions office for the school’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) results. This will provide data on everything from social climate to the prevalence of binge drinking to the level of participation in extracurricular activities. Most schools conduct surveys of their graduates; getting those survey results from the Alumni Affairs office will tell you how satisfied alumni are with the education they received. Ask the Dean’s office if the school has recently administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a tool that measures the acquisition of critical thinking skills, and, if so, how the students scored. Take some time to read the student newspaper and explore the campus bulletin boards; both will give you a window into the campus climate.

Explore opportunities to study abroad. Does the school offer off-campus study programs and, if not, how easy is it to get credit for study abroad? In our increasingly interconnected world, living and studying off campus are among the most valuable opportunities a student will get in college. Similarly, ask about service-learning courses that enable students to apply classroom learning to projects with community partners. Studies have repeatedly shown these to be extremely impactful educational experiences. 

Assess the availability of health services. This includes mental health counseling. How quickly can students get an appointment, especially on weekends? How close is the nearest hospital? Over four years, there’s a good chance your students will need to see a health-care provider for something and when they do, these things will be vitally important.

Evaluate academic advising. What is the effectiveness of the school’s academic advising program? In nearly 40 years of teaching and administration, I have rarely encountered a student who didn’t need guidance—to navigate college requirements, overcome academic challenges, or revise their academic plans. Find out how academic advising works, what the ratio of advisors to students is, and how the institution supports the advisors. 

Louis E. Newman, PhD, is the former Dean of Academic Advising and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University. He currently works as a college success coach. He is the author of Thinking Critically in College: The Essential Handbook for Student Success (Radius Book Group, 2023). Find out more at