“Big Data” Can Help You Track Some Key Metrics that May Affect Your Success in College

“Big Data” is becoming an important watch word in all phases of society. It shapes research in healthcare, politics, and economics for example. It may also be helpful in deciding what campus will fit you best.

As an educational search consultant who has studied and worked on several leading campuses, I have a few key metrics that are worth paying attention to.

Obviously the cost of a future degree or program is very important. That said, many campuses that seem “out of reach” have incredibly generous financial aid that can mitigate that problem—or make them the best choice for the price-conscious consumer.

Don’t let the “before” aide price scare you. Instead, I’d encourage you to focus on the amounts people pay per year *after* aide is applied. In doing so, you may find that seemingly “high cost” campuses are ultimately less expensive than options that, at first pass, seem less costly to you.

That said, what happens if tuition costs aren’t a primary concern, or you have several choices that cost about the same?

Here are some very helpful metrics that can predict how college may go for you. All are easily accessible online.

Most can be summarized by what we might call the “resource-to-student ratio”.

One is the faculty-to-student ratio. This is important because getting attention from faculty members who can help you with class matters, research opportunities, or your ideas and projects that aren’t directly relevant to academics can be harder at a school with lots of students and relatively few faculty. On campuses with relatively more faculty and fewer students, professors—and the opportunities they offer—may be more practically and psychologically accessible.

Many large universities are proud of giving half of their undergraduates opportunities to do research with faculty members. In my experience, small-to-medium sized schools can often give every student who seeks opportunities of this sort the chance to work with faculty. As research is often considered essential for students wanting to get into advanced training, the value of a high faculty-to-student ratio becomes clear—even for the student who may be a “go-getter.”

Remember, even the most determined first-year student has to compete against others who are equally motivated. In larger schools sheer numbers mean that many older students may have greater experience or better faculty contacts than almost any first-year can because they have been there longer.

The faculty-to-student ratio also impacts class size, much as it probably does in your local school district. Large classes can reduce student engagement. Scheduling lectures is also a problem. Some are now set at 7:30 AM, others end at 10PM. Colleges of all sizes now patch this gap with more and more instructors and part-time faculty who don’t always have the right to set course policy in response to student needs. Discussion sections are integral to learning in these large lecture courses. A potentially significant concern with this is that the people who lead these small student-centered learning opportunities are often first-year graduate students, and sometimes even undergraduates, who know little more about the topic than their students.

Is this sometimes a problem in schools with high faculty-to-student ratios? Absolutely! However, it is usually less of a problem there.

The endowment-to-student ratio is another easily determined factor that can affect your success. This is important because high endowment-to-student ratios mean that these universities can try creative things or start new projects far more easily than schools with relatively few funds to spread around.

My own long experience on a variety of campuses suggests to me that if I’d been at a less wealthy school than I was as an undergraduate at Yale, and met someone like my friend Victor with whom I co-created technology that helped turn printed books into electronic text years before others were regularly doing this, getting the funding to make something like the “Yale Text Scanning System” happen might not have been possible.

Staff-to-student ratio is a third key measure of the support and opportunities available on any campus. A large staff can imply a bureaucratic and inefficient administration. It can also mean that ways can be found around bureaucratic knots for the creative, hard working student who refuses to take “no” for an answer. More importantly, it implies there are enough people around to help ensure you that someone will have the time to help before a minor problem becomes a major crisis. That said, wherever you go, its important to be sure the staff provide honest, caring, useful, timely help—something you can learn by working with people like me, going on campus visits, and using student satisfaction websites.

All of this said, you can definitely get a great education at a school where these ratios are not fully in your favor. Very large schools often have unique departments or majors with incredible faculty and enormous resources. Wealthy but very small schools may not have facilities or experience in providing assistance to students with unconventional needs. Only you can know what you will need to succeed.

Finally, as you make your selections and applications, if distance is a concern, please think about it as objectively as you can. College is a huge investment. Don’t let distance keep you from applying to campuses that are truly best for you if you can. Do whatever it takes to get the best balance of resources and access to them—without undercutting your role as a family caregiver, for example—that will help you have a better and more fulfilling educational experience and greater opportunities. In many cases you may find it is better to go further than to stay close, struggle for attention, and spend tens of thousands of your hard earned dollars on a program that doesn’t have everything you need to become the accomplished, successful, financially independent person in whom you are investing so much money, time and hope.

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