I distinctly remember hearing that phrase in 2005 and thinking that it was the perfect way to describe the college search process for first generation students. It described the 17 year-old-me perfectly. I was a first generation college student. I haphazardly conducted the search on my own, used guide books (we didn’t walk uphill both ways to school, but we didn’t have the internet either), hung out in the college resource library a bit, and followed deadlines like it was my religion. Yet, I had no clue. I was lucky; somehow it all came together. But that was 1992 and the world has changed…
I love the campus visit experience! Nothing can take the place of things like standing in the middle of the quad watching students hustle to class, eating lunch while watching how faculty interact with students, or checking out the residence halls to see how students really live, learn, and love. If you’ve heard someone say that they chose a particular college because “it just felt right”, you can safely bet that they had a great visit. Sadly, during my 19 years in higher education I’ve seen plenty of horrible visits. Many disappointing visits occur when a student and/or family does not gather the intel to determine if school could be a good fit option. Data can’t take the place of a campus visit, but it can help you determine how to best use your value resources of time and money.
I suggest making a chart to compare critical pieces of information: new student profile, graduation rates, retention rates, percent of freshmen receiving aid, and average student loan. Then rank the results before making reservations. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is the best source for trusted information. All information comes from the IPEDS Survey which is mandatory for all institutions that participate in any federal financial assistance program. Best of all, the IPEDS Data Center allows users to retrieve data on a single institution, compare institutions on a single variable, view trends over time on a single variable, calculate descriptive statistics of an institution with or without a comparison institution, generate standard reports for an institution, and download data files. It’s a massive collection of everything you need to know and most students don’t know that it exists.
You’ll be surprised what you learn. You may even discover that a school that you had planned to visit is no longer a best fit. More importantly, you may find some of those “hidden gems” that everyone talks about.