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A Key Career Decision: Choosing a College or Graduate School

Marty Nemko

Your career can be heavily affected by which college or grad school you attend. Of course prestige matters, but so does the probability of your graduating, as does how much you're likely to grow in writing, critical thinking, etc. Those abet nearly any career. And if you're picking a career-prep program like law, medical or business school, the training's practicality is crucial.

But how do you find out those things? And how do you do it when you, like millions of applicants, only have until May 1 to make your decision? This should help:

What is the true graduation rate? Ever more, employers require a degree or two for most professional jobs. In picking a college or graduate school you want to know your chances of getting that sheepskin to wave in front of employers. Unfortunately, too many colleges are deceptive in how they report graduation rate: They may report only the percent that graduate in six years, not four. They may exclude subsets of students with a low graduation rate, like athletes, legacies and "special admits." They may report only the expected time to graduation. Just because they "expect" you to graduate in X years doesn't mean that most students do. And of course, reporting just the expected time conveniently omits the percentage of students who never graduate.

Your solution: If the normative graduation rate isn't posted on the institution's website, ask an admissions representative something like, "What percent of freshmen graduate in four years?"

Surprising fact: Nationwide, less than 37 percent of freshmen at so-called four-year colleges graduate in four years. Only 58.8 percent graduate in six years! Of course, the better a student you are, the more likely you are to graduate. So even better, ask, "For students with grades and test scores like mine, what percent graduate in X years?"

How satisfied are the students and alumni? Commercial guides and websites report from a small and/or unrepresentative sample of students on how they rate their college or graduate program, but most institutions have better data. Not only do they routinely ask about students' and alumni's satisfaction with their experience at the institution, but also how well the education prepared them for their career and how well-employed they are after graduation. Ask to see the results of the latest surveys. If an institution won't show them to you or says it doesn't conduct such surveys, that's instructive in itself.

If you're considering a professional training program, talk with employers. For example, if you're considering nursing programs, ask the human resources department of a respected health care provider located where you'd like to work about the training program(s) that has yielded the best employees.

If you graduate, how likely are you to get a job? Ask the admissions representative, "What percent of graduates with a major in X or in graduate program Y are professionally employed within one year of graduation?"

What do the experts say? Nearly all colleges undergo an accreditation process including a site visit by a team of experts. In addition, many graduate programs undergo separate accreditation reviews. Not only do you want to know if a college or program is accredited, it's valuable to ask to see the visiting team report and the length of accreditation term awarded. If the term is much shorter than 10 years, it's cause for concern. The report will explain why the college received a reduced term.

What is it really going to cost you? Many colleges and graduate programs make it difficult to find what it will actually cost to attend. For example, it may give you a generous financial aid package the first year and then pull the plug, knowing you're unlikely to transfer. So ask the institution's financial aid representative, "What's the likely full cost of attendance for the length of the program? And what happens if I take longer--will my cash financial aid be converted to a loan?"

How much cash discount you'll receive will depend on your previous academic record and, if you're younger than age 25, your family's income and assets, so be sure the financial aid representative has that information.

How much do students with previous grades and test scores like mine grow in critical thinking, writing, etc? That's important even if you're going to school mainly to get a better job. Why? Because the better you write and think, the more likely you are to succeed in nearly any career.

Many colleges test at least a sample of its incoming and graduating undergraduates on such skills as writing and critical thinking, but few colleges make the results public. That's understandable because, as reported in "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," a shocking 36 percent of students nationwide "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" between freshman and senior year.

Colleges vary in effectiveness, so you want to find out how your finalist institutions measure up. If a college doesn't post that information on its website, refuses to tell you, or says it doesn't measure student growth, that's instructive in itself.

Getting even some of this information will increase your chances of picking an institution that abets your career and life enough to have been worth the money and years.

Marty Nemko was a member of the Western Association of School and Colleges Task Force on Transparency and Accountability, holds a Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of education, subsequently taught in Berkeley's graduate school, and is the author of seven books. More than 1,000 of his published writings are on www.martynemko.com.

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