10 questions parents should ask about colleges, according to a professor

Admissions advice doesn't come from faculty often. But Jacques Berlinerblau, writing for the Washington Post's "Grade Point," attempts to provide some guidance for parents whose children have admissions decisions to make.

A professor of Jewish Civilization in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Berlinerblau empathizes with parents who have to make the difficult decision about which college their child should attend.

To help parents out, Berlinerblau provides 10 questions for them to ask about colleges during admissions season:

1: Does this college ranking really matter?

Parents often look at rankings as a means to assess the quality of colleges, Berlinerblau writes. But many rankings are based on factors that have little to do with the kind of experience that their particular child will have as an undergraduate, especially with respect to instruction, he explains.

Berlinerblau recommends parents look at the College Scorecard created by the Department of Education, which takes other factors into consideration, such as average salary after graduation, which he argues provides a better picture of what their child's return on investment might be if they attend.  

2: Are campus tours all that helpful?

Campus tours are great for viewing attractive buildings and spaces on campus, but they don't provide much information about how a parent's child will be educated, Berlinerblau writes.

If parents do decide to take their child on a campus tour, it's a good idea to make sure the tour includes a chance to sit in on an actual class at the institution, he recommends.

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3: Is this college claim accurate?  

In every college brochure, you'll see a professor sharing a laugh with an undergraduate while working on a problem, or something similar, Berlinerblau writes. But he recommends parents be more skeptical of vague claims such as "distinguished scholar-teachers" and instead verify such claims on their own.

4:  Are faculty actually committed to teaching?

Many faculty prefer to focus more on their research than on time in the classroom, Berlinerblau writes. As a result, much of the teaching load is placed on adjunct faculty, he explains. Berlinerblau recommends parents find out more about how faculty spend their time at the institution their child is interested in.

5: Where are the most renowned faculty?

The most renowned faculty are often on research leave or doing other activities that don't necessarily involve teaching undergraduates, he explains. Parents should find out if this is the case at the institution their child wants to attend.

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6: Who are the most renowned faculty?  

In addition to knowing how the best faculty are spending their time and where they are spending it, parents may also want to find out more about who will be teaching their child, Berlinerblau recommends.

He suggests perusing course offerings and departmental web sites to see if undergraduates have an opportunity to take courses with prominent faculty.

7: How large are the classes?

Berlinerblau cites a study by Joe Cuseo in the Journal of Faculty Development that discusses the negative implications of large course sizes, especially for first-year students.

He recommends parents be skeptical of the faculty-to-student ratio statistic commonly provided by colleges, and instead look for "hard data" about how small their courses are.

8: Is the college innovative when it comes to teaching?

The most innovative colleges tend to be the best ones, Berlinerblau writes. Parents should ask colleges for concrete examples of innovation: for example, pairing faculty with students to work on research projects.

9: Does the college provide and support diverse viewpoints?

Many parents do not want their child to be inundated with political views, but instead to shape their own, Berlinerblau writes. Therefore, parents should do their research to ensure that their child's prospective colleges will indeed help them understand the world without a bias toward one view or another.

10: Is there a quality honors college?

Honors colleges, which pluck the most academically gifted applicants and place them into an environment with other high-performing students, are often given the best faculty to learn from, Berlinerblau writes. These students also have the benefit of smaller class sizes, he adds.

(Berlinerblau, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 8/26).

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