There are many important questions for students and parents to consider when trying to select the “right” degree-granting college or university, of which there are 4,700 in the U.S.
For example, is a university with a low student-to-faculty ratio better than one where class sizes are large? What is the value of personalized student-faculty interaction?
Does the institution have a welcoming community with strong mentoring and high-touch student services? In today’s growing online education environment, how do you learn critical thinking and team skills without human, face-to-face interaction? These are just a few questions that are particularly important to first-generation students. A new report from the Institute of Education Sciences shows that only 20 percent of first-generation college students earn a bachelor's degree by the age of 25, compared with 42 percent of students who come from families with a college history. Data also show that 54 percent of first-generation students drop out due to money issues, compared with 45 percent of their peers from college-bound families.
At Woodbury University, we cater to first generation students who were reared in modest family circumstances. While our gross tuition is $38,436, more than 75 percent of our students receive some kind of financial aid, with the average student financial aid package totaling $26,824 in 2016-2017. In fact, for California residents, approved for a Cal Grant with an expected family contribution of zero, the net tuition is only $4,432 per year for a freshman student with a GPA of 3.5+.
In my view, the key objective of higher education is teaching and learning. Let’s go back to the great thinkers in Western philosophy from some 2,400 years ago. The model was personalized education: Socrates tutored Plato; Plato tutored Aristotle; and Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great. These were all intellectual giants of their time. And this model of “received wisdom” continues to flourish today at institutions with small class sizes that focus on faculty-student mentoring.
So apart from this time-honored model and the net cost after financial aid, what are the most important parameters in selecting a university? I would suggest looking at three areas: accreditation, student experience and job placement history.
First, in today’s competitive higher education marketplace, independent accreditation is an important measure of quality. Rankings by independent agencies -- like the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) -- are an endorsement of top-notch academic quality.
Second, the culture of the institution and its student experience are crucial. The analogy to the “user experience” at a retail store is instructive, whether online or brick-and-mortar. It has to have the product (the major, in the case of education) that the student is interested in; the right balance between quality and price; and a customer service-orientation. Moreover, the college environment has to be conducive to developing the internal self, including soft skills like leadership and the ability to communicate, which are crucial in today’s collaborative work environment.
And third, the institution should maintain an excellent internship and employment network, resulting in at least 90 percent of graduates landing jobs in their chosen field within six months of graduation. Internships are often the first step for a student and a potential employer to determine if the “fit” is right and for a student to acquire hands-on experience. Professional career and tutorial centers are a must.
For its part, Woodbury University embraces the ancient concept of “received wisdom,” combined with an intimate, communal environment and a campus culture that values educational excellence, while providing a personalized learning experience that emphasizes ethics and awareness of the social challenges facing our nation.
David M. Steele-Figueredo, Ph.D., is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.