Choosing a College: Campus Visits
Louisiana State University’s football team is
ranked number one this year by the USA TODAY/ESPN Coaches
Poll. Ranked number one? It’s the middle of summer.
How is it possible to rank teams when they haven’t
even played a game? The answer, of course, is potential.
Those who do the rankings try to predict how well a team
will do based on the performance of the team last year—even
though many players graduated—and expectations
about the new players, plus the quality of those who
U.S. News & World Report
will soon announce its annual college academic rankings.
Campus presidents, admissions directors, and others
whose campuses may be helped or harmed by the latest
listings will no longer need to hold their breath.
But are these magazine scales any more reliable than
those football rankings?
In many ways, their strengths
and weaknesses are similar. Like summer football rankings,
the rankings in U.S. News & World
Report tell something about the potential impact that
a college or university may have on a student. They do
this because the rankings are based on the resources
of campuses on the one hand and their reputations on
the other. Just like football rankings. What leaders
in higher education say about a campus should also be
important. Even though it’s largely gossip, it’s
usually informed gossip.
Rankings do little, however,
to tell students how they will react to the learning
environment of a campus, how much they will be stimulated
both in and out of class, or how much they will be
stretched to excel. By all odds the best indicator
of whether a campus will feel right for a student is
a campus visit. When possible, prospective students
should spend time on any campus they are considering.
They should listen and learn from current undergraduates,
for their experiences are good guides to what life will
be like. It’s important to check out not just the
curriculum, but also the extra-curriculum and the campus
climate. Students should trust a combination of their
heads and their hearts in determining how and how well
they will engage at a college or university. In fact,
there is lots of evidence that campus visits are the
most important determinant of student choices.
A campus visit should be supplemented,
of course, by as much information as possible about
teaching and learning on a campus. Now there is another
means to help students and parents make informed decisions:
the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Each
year NSSE collects information directly from undergraduates
at hundreds of campuses, based on research about how
and under what circumstances students learn. Prospective
students can check to see whether a college in which
they are interested participates in NSSE. If so, they
may be able to obtain valuable insights about the extent
to which students find the academic work challenging,
the degree to which they are active learners, the extent
of student-faculty interactions, the richness of the
out-of-class experiences, the overall campus environment,
the exposure to diverse cultural experiences, and the
scope of technology uses. Research has shown that the
questions NSSE uses give us a good picture of how much
students are really learning. That’s something that rankings such as those of
U.S. News & World Report can’t tell.
Fortunately, many campuses
would be a right fit for any particular student, so
there should be many institutions from which to choose.
The quality of campus resources and of incoming students—factors that dominate
most rankings—are some of what should be considered.
But no one would choose a hospital based on the health
of patients coming into the hospital, and no one should
choose a college based primarily on the grades and test
scores of incoming students. Since learning is the primary
goal of going to college, students should determine what
environment will best support them in becoming successful
learners, and which institutions will meet their needs
and interests. Making the effort and taking the time
to investigate an institution fully before choosing where
to apply is a short-term investment that will bring dividends
Tom Ehrlich was president of Indiana University from
1987 to 1994. He has been president of the Harvard
Alumni Association, chair of Campus Compact, and a
board member of Bennett College and the University
He is currently a senior scholar with the Carnegie
Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.