How to Choose the Right College -- and Maximize the Value of Your Investment

To all the parents of high-school seniors,

Congratulations! After digesting, but maybe not always enjoying, some 2,000 school lunches since kindergarten, your child has finally joined the ranks of the college bound. Now what? Guidance counselors agree that a degree can fast track students' careers and enrich the quality of their lives, but there is a pronounced lack of consensus when it comes to the art of choosing a college.

What most students look for in higher education, at least according to a recent survey of 200,000 freshmen, is a strong academic reputation, generally measured by published rankings and name recognition, and alumni who land "good jobs" after graduation. Yes, those are indeed indicators of quality, but how else can you be sure that you are getting the maximum return on your investment? As president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design -- and the mother of my own high-school senior -- I've found that asking colleges the right questions is the key to determining your son or daughter's first-choice university. While the following four questions might not be top of mind for many parents, the answers will reveal a wealth of knowledge to help you and your child navigate the all-important search.

1. May I see the final results of your most recent accreditation?

Just as diners often check the official restaurant scores to get the scoop on an establishment's food handling practices, parents should reference a university's most recent accreditation results and findings to learn about the institution's health. The delivery of accreditation results vary depending on the accrediting body, but, generally speaking, institutions should be able to provide you with a report or determination letter that will give you insights into a college's administration, admission practices, curricula, degree objectives, facilities, financial aid, financial stability, program length, student achievement, student support services, teaching staff and more. Unlike health inspections, the accreditation process is voluntary.

Beyond measuring immediate quality, accreditation can have long-term implications. Did you know that the receipt of federal and sometimes state student loans is contingent upon enrollment at an accredited institution? Further, following graduation, licensing boards and employers often require candidates to furnish degrees from accredited programs.

With so much at stake, it's not enough to simply ask if an institution is accredited or not, or to skim accreditation verifications sections in a school's marketing materials. You have the right to see the full version of a college's most recent report. Be sure to read the section containing recommendations for improvement -- that's the real test. If there are any weaknesses noted, ask what steps have been taken to ameliorate these deficiencies. You can also take the pulse of the institution by noting whether or not it has been awarded the maximum term of reaffirmation of accreditation. In other words, did the school score an A+?

2. Are you non-profit?

Another way that prospective students can gauge the quality of a college is by assessing its profit status. At a non-profit college, tuition and fees are reinvested in the university, in order to enrich the educational experience. To wit, non-profits tend to invest in educational facilities, faculty and staff recruitment and retention, dynamic new programs, and innovative tools and technologies.

On the other hand, for-profit universities have a fundamentally different approach to education, and the effect on students is pronounced. Harvard researchers found that, "for-profit students end up with higher unemployment and 'idleness' rates and lower earnings six years after entering programs than do comparable students from other schools, and... have far greater student debt burdens and default rates on their student loans." While there are many fine educators at for-profit universities, your safest bet is to invest in a college that is investing in you.

3. How global are you?

For students seeking to maximize the value of their education, I recommend choosing a college with an international presence. Here's why: Travel broadens students on a personal level by expanding their cultural and intellectual horizons, and prepares them to succeed in a globalized marketplace. Just ask the employers. A study of 10,000 global employers found that 60 percent of respondents actively seek candidates with international study experience.

International experience can be acquired in many ways. Some schools offer international study options, often in partnership with a foreign university, while others have permanent locations around the world. When researching options, look for programs that allow students to seamlessly transfer their credits earned abroad toward their degrees.

4. Do you offer both undergraduate and graduate programs?

I suggest that undergraduate students zero in on institutions that offer graduate programs -- and not because I think that all students should pursue graduate study. Rather, I have found that undergraduate college students benefit from an environment with access to graduate-level courses, faculty, and facilities. The presence of graduate students also enhances the quality of an educational experience: Graduate students themselves are resources to undergraduates, whether serving as mentors or partners in collaboration. Beyond ascertaining the availability of graduate programs, consider the extent to which graduate resources -- for instance, sophisticated and extensive library resources -- are available to first-year students.

Parents, I urge you to use these four queries as a springboard to other lines of inquiry. Don't be shy about asking the questions that will inform your student's decision. After all, education is one of the most important investments in life. And if a college doesn't welcome your questions, well, it may be time to rethink that college's place on your list.

Paula Wallace is the President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).