03/03/2014 10:58 am ET Updated May 03, 2014

Choosing the Right College

Selecting the right college is one of the most important decisions a student will ever make. Yet, it is a decision which is often driven by a set of variables that may have little to do with the appropriateness of the institution for a particular student. With the advent of social media and other forms of technology, students are able, for example, to take a virtual campus tour, listen to a lecture by a popular faculty member, watch a football or basketball game and text or talk with the president or successful graduates.

Via technology, even the least effective and responsive university can make a positive impression on prospective students. Not only can they make a positive impression, they can entice students to enroll. I believe that this attractive enticement is responsible, in part, for the phenomenal enrollment growth experienced by many online proprietary institutions.

Some researchers and practitioners have observed that the lack of fit between an institution and its students may be a major contributor to the low rates of persistence and degree attainment at many colleges and universities. Research has shown, for example, that proportionately fewer low income students who are well prepared academically, apply or enroll at universities with selective admissions policies.

Given the national discussion regarding the need to increase student persistence and degree attainment, I decided to conduct an unscientific review of the website of approximately 50 four-year colleges and universities, public and private, to get a sense of how they market themselves to prospective students. They all spoke in glowing terms about the multitude of learning opportunities available to students, including but not limited to, study abroad, service learning, leadership development, internships, on campus housing options, the range of majors offered and the student-faculty ratio, among other topics. Nearly all depicted their campuses as providing access to state of the art classrooms, laboratories, technology and as aesthetically attractive places for study and personal growth. As one would expect, the lawns were perfectly manicured!

While all of the universities in my unscientific website review espoused their commitment to diversity and showed photographs of a diverse student body, few mentioned faculty and staff diversity. All included standard information about the cost of attendance, availability of scholarships and other forms of financial aid and payment options. But none referenced tuition and fee increases over the past four years, graduation and job placement rates or graduate school acceptance rates.

The winter and spring months are enormously busy times for prospective students and university faculty/staff alike. At no point in the lives of most college bound students have they felt more wooed and pursued than the time leading up to when they decide where to attend college. Most of their emails, telephone calls and text messages are responded to in a timely manner, not only by admissions and financial aid staff but by others as well.

With so many seemingly "perfect" college options, what are the key variables that students and their parents or guardians should give highest priority when selecting a college? First and foremost, they should ignore the glitz and not become mesmerized by the institution's self-promotional hype. Second, no matter the size of the university's endowment, or how highly it's rated by national publications, students and their parents should personalize their decision. As a longtime faculty member, administrator and parent, here are some key questions I believe all students and parents should ask.

1. What are the university's four and six year graduation rates by ethnicity?

2. What percent of courses are taught by full time faculty, part-time faculty or graduate students?

3. What is the average size of introductory level courses?

4. What is the applicant-acceptance ratio for programs with capped enrollment?

5. What is the average level of student loan indebtedness for graduates for the past three years?

6. How accessible are faculty to students?

7. What percent of graduates complete internships?

8. How accessible are learning communities, leadership development programs, study abroad, mentoring, tutorials and honors, counseling services, career development, academic support, etc.?

9. How many students transfer to another school or stop/drop out at the end of their freshman year?

10. What percent of graduates by major obtain employment or admission to graduate or professional school within twelve months of graduation?

11. How safe is the campus compared to other institutions?

12. Ask a faculty member or administrator if they would send their son or daughter to this university?

Selecting a college should be approached with the level of objectivity, thoroughness and deliberateness that all important decisions deserve. The lack of fit between the student and institution is far too costly to be taken lightly.