College Difference Makers

Updated: Aug 8


This continues the discussion started in the previous blog, “Back to the Basics.” Having a grasp on what distinguishes colleges from universities, non-profit from for profit, etc, is half the battle. Next comes all the other difference-makers one might consider when shopping for that top match!



With that said, I want to jump right in and highlight some of what I consider the more important variables to keep a lookout for when college shopping:

Academic Calendar

Graduation Rate

Retention Rate

Curriculum

Enrollment


Academic Calendar

The idea of the school calendar might be the last thing a student or parent would consider when embarking on their great college research quest, but overlooking this nuance might prove to be a bigger deal than one might think as there are certainly pros and cons with each option. I’ll start by saying that the majority of colleges and universities use the traditional semester system that many of us think of when we reflect on the college calendar.


A semester system typically consists of a fall and spring term, each normally 15 weeks long with a winter break in the middle. This allows for longer time periods in each class, and a bit more classes taken at one time; normally 4 to 6. Semesters start in August and end in May. The upsides to a semester calendar are a longer time period to grasp the curriculum and connect with professors, a calendar that normally matches with high school, and in my opinion, ending the year in May. The possible disadvantages are taking a high number of classes at one time, which might not be the best approach for some students, shorter winter and spring breaks, and ultimately being stuck in a 15-week term after realizing a change in major is necessary. This may be the system most of us are familiar with, but there are other options.


Next up, the quarter system. Colleges on the quarter academic calendar are certainly outnumbered by those using the semester, but the list includes some big names like Dartmouth, Northwestern, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, University of Chicago, and University of Washington. Collegexpress, for example, lists 51 schools that use it. The quarter system consists of 10-week terms throughout the year with fall, winter, and spring being the most commonly used. The fall quarter starts in September and the spring quarter ends in June. Quarters contain fewer classes than semesters, thus allowing students to focus on less content at one time. In addition, a student graduating on the quarter system will normally end up taking more classes by the time they graduate, which allows for a possible double major, extra minor or simply more electives of interest. The shorter term also means less time a student has to endure a class they don’t like or a major they want to change. I, also, personally like that the break between fall and winter quarter is longer than that of the semester system, going from around Thanksgiving all the way to early January. The disadvantages, however, are evident as well. Class times are longer in order to fit the amount of needed hours in, and the calendar differs from the conventional one that most of society is used to which can create issues with study abroad as well as internships.


Finally, we have the rare but highly championed block system. Look into schools like Colorado College, Cornell College (Iowa), or Lynn University and you should quickly discover the unique advantages to this approach. In short, it revolves around taking one class at a time for a much shorter term. As one can imagine, there are some great advantages to this when it comes to time management. If this sparks your curiosity, I encourage you to learn about it through one of the participating school websites!


Graduation Rate

The graduation rate can serve as a piece to the puzzle in identifying the strength of a college or university. Essentially, it is the percentage of students who earn a degree from the same institution they started at without having left. When digging around, one will find that these rates are indicated by 4-year, 5-year and 6-year. Because it is so very common for students to take 5 or 6 years to graduate from a particular institution, the 6-year rate is the best one to analyze. Ready for a shocking number? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average 6-year graduation rate in the U.S. is 60%. One can probably guess that at schools like Harvard, the graduation rate is well into the 90’s. But I want to caution you from simply passing up a school because of their lower grad rate and perceived weaker academic environment until you learn a little bit more about the institution and the population they are serving. Not all schools are blessed with endowments like Harvard, and therefore may not have the funding to keep students around. Less financial aid doesn’t necessarily point to a bad school, but it does mean that a portion of the students attending might struggle to pay and have to drop out or transfer for that very reason alone. I could write a whole blog on this topic alone but I think you understand my plea to dig a little deeper.


Retention Rate

In my opinion, the retention rate, or the percentage of freshman returning to the same institution for their sophomore year, is a better indicator of whether or not a school is doing a good job. It’s essentially a score on student happiness. One of the reasons I like this indicator is because, theoretically, it assumes less attrition based on school affordability. In other words, after just one year, less students will drop out because of financial reasons. So, in my opinion, it is a bit more telling of the strength of a college or university’s academics, campus life, safety, etc, than a graduation rate that may be skewed by affordability. The recent average retention rate, according to NCES, is 76% in the U.S.


Curriculum

How often does one really analyze the curriculum of a prospective college? In my mind, it certainly makes sense to determine what courses are required for a particular major. For example, does that sought after business major at the university down the road require calculus at the college level or just statistics when it comes to math? Obviously, there is a big difference between the rigor in those two subjects. Or does the architecture program at your college of interest require a semester studying abroad? There are certain classes or requirements that we should know about prior to pursuing a particular major at a prospective college, as some of us might develop a cold sweat at the idea of taking calculus or spending a whole semester overseas away from friends and family. Major aside, what is the general curriculum? Is world language required of all students? Is the private college your student is considering heavy on liberal arts, and therefore requiring more general education classes than the regional state school? But on the other hand, does the private college offer more credits for their AP scores in high school, whereas the state school less? You can see the importance of researching these factors. Not all colleges make it easy to reference their course requirements, but I recommend Googling the college name and “course catalog” for starters. Similarly, you can Google “AP credit” or “IB credit” along with the college name to reference a rubric that provides college credit information.


Enrollment

The final category I feel is worthy of coverage, at least in this particular blog, would be that of the student enrollment or population. It is all too common for students who attended a smaller high school to seek out the opposite in college, and therefore pursue very large state schools. This is understandable, but they might not be thinking about all the implications of going from a high school of 1,800 students to a college of 38,000. They might be taking for granted the fact that their high school teacher knows them by name, says hello, or asks how their family is doing, and actually is the one grading their papers and meeting with them after class to help them with a topic they find difficult to learn. All of this goes out the window at a large university, especially in the first two years of general education lecture style classes. Some students are perfectly fine with this and have good arguments for it. They want large environments, and will have no issues thriving. But other students might not realize they actually need a smaller classroom structure to take advantage of a collaborative, comfortable style of learning. There is good reason large universities continually try to find ways to create or promote, sometimes falsely, opportunities that allow for smaller classes. Most large schools offer honors programs, for example, which do just that: to reward eligible, high achieving students not only the top professors and student cohorts to thrive among, but also minimal class sizes in order to allow for the best possible education.

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