Helping High School Students Prepare for College

On October 27, 2005, Chris Kubic of Grayslake Central High School in Grayslake, IL asked list members for information on the topics of student success rates (GED v. diploma, “native” v. transfer), what students need to know before beginning college, and how to prepare for college while in high school. Several responses included having students discuss their expectations before they begin and the re-evaluating those expectations in light of the realities. Subscribers also suggested discussing the differences between high school and college (time management issues, syllabi, etc.). JoAnn Moseman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provided a list of issues she has seen in her students, and Joe Cuseo shared two pieces he wrote – one regarding collaboration across education levels (secondary to postsecondary) and the other with tips for what to look for during the college search. Lastly, Rozalia Williams recommended a book she wrote which, much like Joe Cuseo’s essay, provides tips for the college search process and questions to ask.


Chris Kubic (read FYE post or send email) ckubic@D127.ORG
Marcie Pospichal (read FYE post or send email) mpospichal@FLSOUTHERN.EDU
Kathy Sack (read FYE post or send email) ksack2@WASHCOLL.EDU
JoAnn Moseman (read FYE post or send email) jmoseman@UNLNOTES.UNL.EDU
Debra Morrisey (read FYE post or send email) dmorrissey@UNIONKY.EDU
Bob Lang (read FYE post or send email) rlang@INDIANA.EDU
Laurie Hazard (read FYE post or send email) lhazard@BRYANT.EDU
Joe Cueso (read FYE post or send email) jcuseo@EARTHLINK.NET
Joe Cuseo (read FYE post)
Beverly Walker (read FYE post or send email) bwalker@NCSTATECOLLEGE.EDU
Rozalia Williams (read FYE post or send email) hiddencurriculum@AOL.COM

October 27, 2005 9:56AM
Original Message: data


I am a former orientation/FYE assistant director now working in the secondary education field, and I'd like to exchange information with you.

I am seeking the following:

- Data on success rates for students who earn a GED vs. a diploma

- Data on success rates for transfer students vs. "native" students at four-year universities

- Your advice on what students need to know before attending college

- Your advice on how students can prepare for college while still in high school (including freshman and sophomore years)

I'd like to offer anything I can for the good of the FYE cause. I don't have access to a wide range of data, but I can conduct informal surveys if you are interested in finding out what students want to know, what they think they know, and how they feel about the college experience. I could also talk with faculty and/or guidance counselors about how schools are preparing students for college. I'm sure there are comprehensive studies with plenty of data out there, but if you want a more personal, "inside" look, please let me know what I can do.

Thanks very much,

Chris Kubic
Grayslake Central High School
Grayslake , IL

October 27, 2005 11:06AM
Re: data

Dear Chris:

Although we are only in our 4th year of FYE programming, survey data we have collected from our new freshmen has been very useful in helping us think about student expectations and self-perceptions when they enter college.

We survey our freshman students the first week of classes (Sept.), then again in Dec. and April. In self-evaluation in Sept., 50% - 80% of students believe that each of 10 college skills (critical thinking, writing, public speaking, library research, etc.) are "college ready" and 100% of them expect to earn only As and Bs. These are not irrational expectations because they have generally been highly successful in high school. Why should they NOT think that? However, such expectations are unrealistic and we are working on ways to share this with incoming students so they are not devastated by their first C or (heaven forbid) lower grade.

Additionally, we ask students to anticipate their greatest challenge in Sept., and then ask them to look back and identify this challenge again in Dec. and April of their freshman year. The number one response in all months of years surveyed was time management, adjustment to college was 2nd or 3rd, and writing skills also showed up in the "top 10" all years, all months. So students realize there will be challenges, they just don't understand the nature of the challenges. So helping students understand ways that college is different from high school- for example, they won't have time to do homework in class and may have no homework at all, no extra credit, late work may not be accepted, they have to "plan backwards" to complete a long-term project- is critical.

One thing I am considering during freshman orientation or Freshman Seminar is providing students with 4 sample syllabi that they must pretend are truly theirs and walking them through how to read a syllabus, translate faculty policies, and plan out their semester. I haven't done this yet so I don't know if it is a good idea- it's just an idea at this point!

Marcie W. Pospichal, Ph.D.
Director, Academic Support Services
Florida Southern College
Lakeland , FL

October 27, 2005 11:49AM
Re: data

We used to do this at a university where I previously taught FYE classes. It was very helpful in bringing reality to life and teach needed skills. We also had them write themselves a letter about how they thought life would be their 1st year and then we would mail it to them at the end of the term….they were surprised at how naïve they had been in August…a lifetime for them.

Kathy Sack
Assistant Dean for Academic Resources
Washington College
Chestertown , MD

October 27, 2005 11:50AM
Re: data


I applaud your efforts to prepare secondary students for college. You bring up interesting issues, including measuring success. Defining and measuring student success is one of our challenges.

I would suggest secondary students need to know more about transferring credit. With the increasing number of students who bring some kind of college credit earned in high school combined with those who enroll at 2 or more institutions concurrently, take a course from another university on-line, pick up a summer course at a local community college, study abroad, or unexpectedly transfer, the number of students who now have “transfer credit” is ever growing. And that does not take into consideration the number of students who attend a 2 year school with full intention to transfer, or students who transfer from one college to another within a university.

A few of the issues that regularly surprise students: (I am sure this group could add to it.)

· They must report every institution they have attended—and send us an official transcript from each.

· There is a limit to the number of hours that can transfer from 2 year colleges

· We require their high school transcript (no matter how long they have been out of school)

· Their scholarship from XYZ University does not transfer with them

· The scholarship they were offered as a graduating senior is no longer available

· The scholarship money available (here) for transfer students is less than that for first year students

· Even though the university may accept transfer credit, the credit may or may not apply to the degree they are seeking.

· We do not provide an official evaluation of their transfer credit until students are admitted

· We publish a list of course equivalencies, but anything not on that list will have to be evaluated and may require more information from the student (keep all syllabi.)

· That the last to apply are the last to register for classes, leaving few options. (Captain Obvious strikes again.)

We are trying to become more intentional about creating and publishing policies, but have a harder time getting the information to secondary students and their parents. I would be interested in any success stories others may have.

I also think there is another set of issues students (and parents) need to know about enrolling in college credit while in high school, but that is for another day.


JoAnn Moseman
Academic Transfer Coordinator
Office of Undergraduate Studies
201 Seaton Hall
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln , NE 68588-0683
TEL: 402-472-9455

October 27, 2005 1:42PM
Re: data

What Secondary students need to know: I think those who need disability accommodations are unsure what to do at the college level, or they expect the same kind of services they received in high school. We have many who enter and have no idea or they wait until they are into the semester before seeking help.

Debra Morrissey
Director of Special Programs
310 College Street D-19
Barbourville , KY 40906
fax: 606-546-1522

October 27, 2005 2:10PM
Re: data

I am new to this list, but I would like to share my insights from an academic advisor's point of view. I think students need to know about the education process in general. Everyday I have students who are on probation or suspension because they did not know the process for dropping a class. Often they do not know that they should talk to their instructor(s) if they are having difficulty. They are unaware that there are resources to help them be successful. They think if they are having difficulty with a class, it is because they are unintelligent. Many students do not know the ins and outs of financial aid. For students who are first generation college students, this is even more of a challenge to them.

Bob Lang
Academic Advising
Indiana University East

October 27, 2005 5:44PM
Re: data

Hi Chris,

We do similar surveying/assessing with our first-years. Overwhelmingly each year, the two categories that tend to emerge for our students for college preparedness is the need for sound time management practices (we embed the psychology of procrastination in our instruction around this topic) and adjusting to the type and volume of reading.

Laurie Hazard
Bryant University
Smithfield , RI

October 31, 2005 9:28AM
Re: data

Chris, and other interested parties:

Thanks for your continued interest in the first-year experience and for your collaborative spirit. I'm responding with info relating to three of your four inquiries. I'm unable to help with respect to your first query about the comparative college-success rates of GED vs. diploma-earning high school graduates. (However, I think it's a good question to ask. If there are differences, this may be another variable that needs to be plugged into prediction equations and instruments that have been designed to assess student characteristics at college entry that are related to risk for subsequent attrition or need for early intervention.)

I do have information relating to your remaining three questions. Attached is a document that contains information pertaining to the transitional experiences of students transferring from 2- to 4-year colleges ("vertical" transfer) and from one 4-year college to another ("lateral" transfer). Most of the data that I'm aware of has been collected on the former transition, and it may be found on pp. 7-9 of the attached manuscript. (Note: The manuscript was completed a couple of years ago, so it doesn't include research results that may been published in '04-05.)

With respect to your question about what students should know before attending college, I think it would be useful if they knew more about what to look for in a "good" college and what they should do when they encounter that dreaded box on college-application forms that asks about their intended major. One factor that can contribute to college success or attrition is the nature of the student-college "fit." It has been my experience that college-bound students equate college quality with selectivity, i.e., the college is to get into, the better the school. This can cause students to focus on applying and getting into the "best" (most selective) institution they can, while overlooking whether the characteristics and priorities of that institution are compatible with their individual needs, interests, or abilities. Furthermore, it appears to me that during the college-choice process, many high school students do not consider how colleges' differ in terms of the quality of their first-year experience programs and other important educational processes--such as the quality of academic advisement, general education curriculum, co-curricular experiences, etc. I've put together some material for high school students that's designed to help them look for important educational features when they choosing a college and what key questions they should ask college representatives. I'll share those guidelines with you as an attachment to a separate message that will follow this one. (I'm doing it this way because multiple attachments to a single message that's sent from my home computer often don't reach its intended recipient.)

Regarding my suggestion about helping students when they encounter application forms (or college admissions representatives) that ask about their intended major, I feel that high school students need to know that they shouldn't feel pressured to make a selection, or feel that they are clueless, apathetic, procrastinators if they haven't already made up their mind. (I'll follow-up with another message attached to which will be some material relevant to this issue that I've developed for use in the freshman seminar, but which I think would even be more effective if it reached high school students during the college-application process.)

Lastly, at the end of this message I've pasted some information on high school - college collaboration strategies, which may be relevant to your final query about what can be done for students during high school (including frosh and sophs) that may better prepare them for the college experience.

Hope this helps. Stay tuned for the two follow-up messages with attachments.

All the Best,

- Joe -


Collaboration Across Different Segments or Sectors of the Educational System

Reform agents argue that there are inter-segmental gaps in the American educational pipeline that need to be bridged before the system can function in a seamless fashion. Postsecondary institutions, in particular, have tended to function independent of, rather than interdependently with other segments of the educational system. Higher education has been criticized for operating as an "isolated island" and for sitting "alone atop the educational pyramid," while condescendingly shifting blame to the K-12 sector for its failure to academically prepare students for college-level work (The Pew Higher Education Roundtable, 1993, p. 9A). According to Derek Bok, Harvard president emeritus, "Very few institutions have given much encouragement to faculty interested in improving the schools. What we have done instead is simply to relegate all of the work on schools to the faculty of education, then to stuff the faculty of education down at the bottom of the campus hierarchy and ignore it. I think it would be easier to argue that we are part of the problem than it would be to argue that we are part of the solution" (1992, p. 19).

In 1983, the American Council on Education and the Education Commission of the States issued an influential national report titled, One Third of a Nation, which issued seven major challenges to our educational system, one of which was for its leaders to cooperate across all levels of education - from elementary through graduate school. During the 1990s, the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) made school/college collaboration a key focus point of its national reform agenda (American Association for Higher Education, 1993). These national reform efforts fueled a proliferation of school-college partnerships that emerged during the 1990s. These partnerships focused primarily on the following collaborative initiatives: (a) early identification and intervention programs in which K-12 students are brought to college campuses for educational enrichment and academic skill building, (b) professional development opportunities for college faculty and academic support professionals to engage in K-12 service and scholarship, and (c) school-college course articulation and curriculum development (Wilbur & Lambert, 1995). Specific school-college collaborative practices designed to implement these goals and other objectives relating to the school-to-college transition are included in this section of the taxonomy (subsection 6.1).

Collaboration Between Schools & Colleges, a.k.a., School-College Partnerships

- Academic Alliances: faculty from colleges and high schools who teach in the same academic discipline collaborate to identify critical subject-matter knowledge, core concepts, and pedagogical strategies that promote student learning in their particular subject area. (For example, high school-and college faculty collaborate to develop subject-specific capstone courses for high school seniors).

- High School Outreach Programs: colleges collaborate with high schools to facilitate high school students' college access, transition, and retention. These programs are often aimed at underrepresented students; if they are targeted for younger students (e.g., students in junior high or elementary school), they are typically referred to as "Early Identification Programs."

Types of High School-Outreach & Early-Identification Practices/Programs:

- College administers Math and English placement tests to high school students during the sophomore or junior year, enabling teachers to work on students' skill development before they graduate.

- "Summer High School Juniors Program": college offers summer programming for high school juniors to prepare them for their senior year, their upcoming college-application process, and their eventual freshman-year experience in college.

- High school students tutored by college students in subject matter relating to their academic major - for purposes of promoting high school students' (a) level of academic achievement, (b) preparation for college and (c) interest in attending college.

- College provides a teaching-learning "hotline" for use by local high school students and high school instructors (e.g., math education hotline).

- An outstanding high school teacher on sabbatical leave serves as the "master learner" in a federated learning community model. This procedure is identical to the FLC previously described in section 1.6; the only difference being that a high school instructor, rather than a college faculty member, attends the federated courses and serves as the master learner. The high school teacher is granted a complete tuition waiver by the college - which also helps the high school pay for the instructor's replacement. One major objective of this practice is to provide high school teachers with a professional development opportunity that may serve to enhance their ability to prepare high school students for the academic expectations and responsibilities they will encounter in college.

- College provides feedback to high schools on their graduates' collegiate performance - e.g., their first-year academic achievement (GPA) and retention rate.

- University faculty teach advanced college-credit courses to high school seniors for the purpose of stimulating their interest in and attendance at college. (Note: High school students may take these course on the college campus, where they may also be allowed free access to the university's educational and recreational facilities, thereby further promoting their identification with and involvement in the college community.)

- College students teach one or two lessons in a public high school, using material from courses they are currently taking at the university. High school instructors may request topics from a menu sent to them by the college, and the college instructor awards credit to the student (e.g., extra credit; exemption from an exam or paper).

- Dual-enrollment programs whereby high school seniors enroll in college-level courses for college credit, particularly courses that are not offered for advanced placement credit at the seniors' high school. This is designed to combat the academic disengagement that sometimes strikes seniors who have finished the brunt of their college-preparatory courses and have psychologically "checked out" of high school while they await their transition to college.

- Local high school students, faculty, and staff are invited to college programs and special events free of charge.

- "College Scouts Plan": college alumni register at the state's public libraries, and high school students are matched with these alumni to form mentor-protegee pairs.

- Joint high school and college "outstanding teacher" award ceremonies-designed to recognize outstanding secondary and postsecondary teachers, promote school-college relations, and stimulate high school students' interest in attending college (and, perhaps, pursuing a future teaching career).

- Selected high school counselors work with college freshmen, with the participating college and high school sharing the cost of these counselors' salaries. After spending two full terms on the college campus, the counselors return to their local school districts better equipped to assist high school seniors' transition to college and well-positioned to train other counselors.

- Summer Bridge Program: High school faculty collaborate with college faculty to teach in a summer program for students who are transitioning from their last (spring) semester in high school to their first (fall) semester in college, thus serving to "bridge" students' transition from high school to higher education. These programs typically target academically "at-risk" students (e.g., low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students) and include an orientation to higher education plus a residential experience, whereby participants take courses together and reside on campus in the same college residence.

- Qualified high school students are allowed to take college courses for which they receive advanced college-placement credit.

- College faculty or academic support professionals meet with teachers and counselors from feeder high schools, where they review the academic performance of the school's graduates during their freshman year at the college.

- College of education faculty collaborate with high school and elementary school teachers to identify the knowledge, professional skills, and personal qualities associated with effective K-12 instruction so as to improve teacher education and preparation.

- High school and college collaborate to offer an academic tract for academically advanced high school students, enabling them to complete both high school and college in 6 years-through a curriculum jointly developed and taught by high school and college faculty.

- "2+2" or "2+1" arrangements: technical studies programs begun in high school are completed at a 2-year college, either as part of a certificate program or associate degree (A.A./A.S.) program.

October 31, 2005 9:34AM
guidelines for choosing a college

Chris, et al.,

Attached is the document relating to college-choice guidelines for high school students.

Joe –


Joe Cuseo Marymount College


A number of scholars in American higher education have argued that the mission or institutional purpose of many universities lacks clarity and consistency, i.e., institutions are not sure what their mission is, or they may say they are one thing in print and do something else in practice. (For example, beware of viewbooks claiming that the college is devoted to providing high-quality teaching from faculty who are also nationally preeminent researchers.). Criticism has been directed at institutions claiming multiple missions that may not be mutually compatible (e.g., teaching and research; undergraduate and graduate education). Over the years, some colleges and universities have “drifted” away from their original mission as teaching institutions and now have expanded their mission to include more emphasis on research or graduate education. Pursuit of additional missions may suggest that the institution is “spreading itself too thin” and trying to be “all things to all people.” As a result, your primary concern as college consumer—which is the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning—may be compromised by competing institutional interests and priorities.

Research indicates that colleges with a focused mission that is clearly and consistently communicated in its institutional publications and public announcements are colleges that:

(a) more effectively promote student involvement in the college experience, (b) have a stronger sense of college “community,” and (c) have higher rates of student retention (i.e., higher graduation rates).

Key Questions to Ask About College Mission:

1. What is the stated mission of the college--i.e.: What is its institutional purpose or primary goal?

(Look for mission statements that are student-centered with an emphasis on undergraduate teaching and learning, and beware of responses which suggest multiple purposes, some of which may have little to do with the quality of undergraduate education.)

2. Is the college mission communicated clearly and consistently in print (e.g., institutional publications) and in person (e.g., by admissions representatives)?

3. What specific programs or practices has the college designed to put its avowed mission and philosophy (the rhetoric) into action (the reality)?

4. Are the college's policies and practices "mission-driven," i.e.: Do they derive from, and are they consistent with the college's stated purpose?

5. Does the institution have a unique or distinctive mission--i.e., Can it be distinguished from other colleges and universities?



Surveys of both college administrators and college students indicate that satisfaction with faculty and the quality of their teaching is the #1 reason why students stay at a college and go on to complete their degree. A number of "prestigious" colleges and universities (such as Stanford, Harvard, Michigan, Dartmouth, and the University of California, Berkeley) have issued reports calling for more attention to the quality of teaching and undergraduate education.

Key Questions to Ask About Teaching & Faculty Behavior:

1. What percentage of the faculty are part-timers?

2. Do faculty mostly lecture at students, or do they attempt to actively involve students in class?

3. Do the faculty know the names of students in most of their classes?

4. Do students receive written feedback from teachers on exams?

5. How many office hours do faculty usually keep per week?

6. Is it common for faculty give their home phone number or home e-mail address to students in their classes?

7. Is it common for faculty members to contact students outside of class (e.g., by phone) to provide assistance or support?

8. Is there much informal student-faculty contact outside of the classroom (e.g., students and faculty having lunch or dinner together; playing sports together; doing research together)?

9. How are instructors evaluated?

For example:

(a) How much weight is given to teaching effectiveness (relative to research and publication) in decisions about faculty promotion and tenure?

(b) If faculty are expected to publish, is research relating to teaching effectiveness, student learning or student development strongly encouraged and rewarded?

10. Is there a new-faculty orientation program provided for recently-hired faculty?

11. Is there an instructional development program for faculty at the college?

12. Are faculty rewarded in any way for outstanding teaching?

13. Does the college actively encourage, recognize, and reward faculty for out-of-class involvement with students?



Survey research indicates that this is the #1 area of student dissatisfaction with the college experience (other than parking and cafeteria food!). Also, advising has been the #1 target area of college administrators who are attempting to improve student retention at their college. Effective advising can prevent critical errors that can be costly to students. For example, neglecting to inform a student of a newly required course or prerequisite may result in delayed graduation, which can be costly to the student in terms of extra tuition and lost income.

Moreover, research indicates that college students are very confused about what they should major in and what careers are associated with different college majors. For example, about 50% of all entering college freshmen are “undecided” about their college major and one-half of the other 50% who've allegedly “decided” on a major when they first enter college eventually go on to change their mind by the time they reach their junior year. In fact, recent studies suggest that most college students change their mind about their major at least three times before graduation. (Note: This major-changing phenomenon takes place among students at highly selective, “prestigious” colleges as well).

Thus, it appears that the vast majority of college students need effective, personal academic advising and career counseling because final decisions about majors and related careers are typically made during the college experience, not before it. For any institution to be considered "high quality," it must provide students with the essential advisement needed for linking their present academic experiences with their future life plans.

Key Questions to Ask About Academic Advising:

1. Is each student matched with a personally assigned advisor, or is advising conducted by a general “advisement center?” (Or, worse still, can the student register for courses without ever speaking with an advisor and getting an advisor's signature?)

2. How frequent is the contact between advisors and students? (For example: How often do they typically meet during the semester?)

3. Does the student have an opportunity to select or change his/her advisor?

4. Do advisors receive special training and development?

5. Does the college have trained peer advisors available to assist students in the advising process?

6. Are advisors, and the advising program, regularly evaluated by the college?

7. Are outstanding advisors recognized or rewarded in any way?



Research clearly indicates that the transition from high school to college is not an easy one. The freshman year is a critical transition period when students are most likely to receive their lowest grades, experience the most stress, and are most likely to dropout of college. (This is particularly true of the first semester of the freshman year.) Thus, special attention and effective support for freshmen would be one important characteristic to look for in a high-quality college.

Key Questions to Ask About Support for First-Year Students:

1. What is the average class size for introductory, general-education classes taken by freshmen and sophomores?

2. What is the average class size for important skill-development courses, such as writing (composition) and oral communication (public speaking)?

3. Who teaches freshmen? For example, what percentage of introductory courses is taught by:

(a) faculty (as opposed to graduate teaching assistants)?

(b) full-time faculty (as opposed to part-time or adjunct faculty)?

(c) experienced faculty (as opposed to newly-hired faculty)?

4. How much writing is done by freshmen (e.g., essay exams; reaction papers; journals; term papers)?

5. Does the college guarantee on-campus housing for all first-year students?

6. Does the college offer a freshman-orientation program before classes begin?

If yes:

(a) Is the program required or optional?

(b) If the program is optional, what percentage of entering students participate in the program?

(c) How long is the program?

(d) Do new students actually meet and interact with other students and faculty during freshman orientation? (As opposed to the traditional nuts-‘n’ -bolts "campus tour"--which tends to orient freshmen to college buildings rather than to real people?)

(e) Does the program have a component designed for the parents or family of new students?

7. Is there a new-student convocation or introductory ceremony at which time the college formally welcomes beginning students into its “community” of learners?

8. Is there a freshman orientation course (student-success course) offered during the first semester to help beginning students make the transition from high school to college and to apprise them of how to get the most out of their college experience?

9. Are the college-entry skills of incoming freshmen assessed in order to diagnose academic preparedness and to place then in courses or programs that are commensurate with their present levels of skill development?

10. How many courses (if any) taken by students during the first year of college will have a class sizeless than 20?

11. Does the college have an early-warning or early-alert system whereby first-semester students receive feedback about their progress during the semester (e.g., at midterm) before they receive their final course grades?

12. Does the college have peer mentors or peer counselors who are trained to assist freshmen?

13. Does the college deliver its freshman-support services “intrusively?” For example:

(a) Are students personally contacted by mail or phone?

(b) Are support services brought to students on their “turf?” (e.g., delivered in the dorms? in the student union?)

(c) Are support services brought to students in the classroom (e.g., service professionals as guest speakers in class; peer tutors in class)?

(d) Are students explicitly encouraged or required to take advantage of support services (e. g. as a course assignment or as a condition for registration or graduation)?

14. For first-year transfer students:

(a) Does the college offer a transfer-student orientation program to help new transfer students become familiar with, and adjust to the college?

(b) Does the college allow junior transfers the opportunity to live on campus in student residences with juniors and seniors , or are they forced to live in freshman dorms or off-campus apartments?

(c) Does the college allow transfer students the opportunity to apply for campus housing and register for classes at the same time as its regular students, or are transfer students automatically placed last on the list, forcing them to take only what's left after all other students have completed the process?

(d) Is there a person in charge of coordinating orientation and support programs for transfer students?





The curriculum of many American colleges and universities has been repeatedly criticized for being fragmented, disjointed and lacking coherence primarily because faculty, who decide what is to be included in the curriculum, have either tended to teach what they want to teach (i.e., overly narrow, hyper-specialized courses in their disciplines) or, for territorial reasons, have insisted that their particular area of expertise be included as a piece of the general-education pie. This can result in a dizzying array of "distribution requirements" which are taken "smorgasbord style" (a little of this and a little of that) with little sense of connection among general-education courses (breadth requirements) or between general-education courses and specific courses in the student's major (depth requirements). At some colleges and universities, general-education requirements may actually be fulfilled by taking a variety of very narrowly-focused, esoteric courses which represent the specialized research interests of the faculty rather than true general education—i.e., courses that every educated college graduate should experience because of their relevance to all humans and all careers.


Key Questions to Ask About the College Curriculum:

1. Is there a rationale given for the college's general-education curriculum, i.e., the courses required of all students regardless of their particular major? (For example: Is it clear why these courses are required or how they will benefit students, either personally or professionally?

2. Does the college curriculum start with a meaningful beginning that provides first-year students with some introduction to the wide array of required general-education courses they will encounter during their first two years in college? (For instance: Does the college offer a freshman seminar which introduces new students to the meaning and value of liberal arts curriculum and general education?)

3. Have college faculty from different academic disciplines collaborated to develop a curriculum that has a focus, theme or program which serves to integrate or connect the variety of general-education courses that students are required to take?

4. Does the college have a “core curriculum,” i.e., a specific set of courses which all students are required to take regardless of their major?

5. Does the college allow groups of students take the same courses during the same term/semester so that they can develop “learning communities?”

6. Are courses in academic majors organized in such a fashion that there is a purposeful beginning (introduction), middle, and end (closure) to the program?

7. Does the curriculum contain any major fields of study which are well recognized or distinctive in terms of their being innovative and especially relevant for today’s world?

8. Does the curriculum include a meaningful and coherent honors program for academically well-qualified students?

9. Does the curriculum include a study-abroad option designed to enrich the academic experience and provide it with an international component that is relevant for today's globally-Interdependent world?

10. Does the college expand its curriculum and allow students the opportunity to increase their course-selection options by "cross-registering" for courses offered at other colleges nearby, or through "inter-campus student exchanges?"

11. For transfer student(s): Will the college accept all, or most your previously-taken courses and will it accept previously-taken general education courses for general education credit—not merely for elective credit?

12. Is the curriculum scheduled on the semester system (e.g., two 15-16 week periods per year), or on a quarter system (e.g., four 8-week periods per year). Note: There is some evidence that more students prefer the semester system because it is less “rushed,” allowing more time to “digest” course material and more time to respond to instructor feedback. In addition, research indicates that student retention (degree completion) is higher on the semester system than the quarter system.



Research indicates that students' involvement in campus activities and student life outside the classroom contribute significantly to their satisfaction with the college experience, their persistence to graduation, and their leadership ability after graduation. Furthermore, alumni often report that their most meaningful and memorable college-learning experiences occurred outside the classroom.

The quality of such out-of-class student experiences involve much more than "fun & games" and an active “social life.” Quality colleges attempt to carefully engineer out-of-class activities in a way that provides students with powerful experiential learning opportunities.

Key Questions to Ask About the Co-Curriculum:

1. Does the college attempt to integrate or coordinate students' in-class (academic) and out-of- class (co-curricular) learning experiences?

2. How common is informal, out-of-class interaction between students and faculty?

3. What leadership opportunities are available for students at the college?

4. Does the college recognize students who make contributions to student life and community life outside the classroom?

5. Does the college have a "co-curricular (student development) transcript" which documents students' contributions to campus and community life, and which can be sent to prospective graduate schools or future employers?

6. What internship (work experience related to the student’s major) or volunteer (community service) opportunities are available for students at the college? Are these “hands-on” experiential learning built into the curriculum as an integral part of general-education and the academic major?

7. Does the college provide meaningful work-study (on-campus employment) opportunities to help students pay for their tuition and explore possible careers?

8. Can student life on campus be characterized as collaborative and having a sense or feeling of community? (If no, why not?)(If yes, how is collaboration and community spirit demonstrated?)

9. Are college residences (dormitories) designed to do more than house and feed students? Instead, do they offer educational programs that provide a “living-learning environment”— for example: tutoring in the dorms; workshops or classes occasionally held in student residences; academic advising offered in the dorms; faculty offices or faculty living in student residences?

10. What are the dormitory rules and regulations regarding alcohol use? (For example: Are some or all dormitories designated required to be alcohol-free? Can students change rooms or residences if a roommate is abusing alcohol or other drugs)

11. Does the college offer coeducational housing in addition to single-sex dorms? Note: Research suggests that coed housing has positive effects on promoting opposite-sex friendships, and reducing sex stereotyping, self-consciousness, and social anxiety (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

12. For commuter students: Does the college display sensitivity to non-residential students in its selection and scheduling of campus events and co-curricular experiences?



Quality colleges are sensitive to key student transitions, including not only the transition into college (the freshman year experience), but also the transition out of college (the senior year experience). The question, “What does the college do for its seniors?” is one which is receiving increasing national attention (Gardner, Van der Veer & Associates, 1998). In particular, colleges and universities are being challenged to do more for their graduating students in terms of providing a meaningful ending to their college experience and facilitating a more effective beginning of their lives after college. The senior year represents the institution’s last chance to do something positive for its students and, when coupled with comprehensive freshman-year support, the institution can effectively provide a meaningful introduction and conclusion to the college experience, anchoring it with student support at its two most critical transition points.

Key Questions to Ask About Support for Seniors During the Final Year of College:

1. Does the college offer a “capstone” course for seniors that is designed to "tie together" the college experience and facilitate the transitionfrom college to post-college life?

2. Are there courses offered in the final year which are designed to provide a meaningful synthesis of, or conclusion to the senior’s academic major and connects the major with potential careers?

3. Does the college offer leadership development programs targeted for seniors in order to help them prepare for leadership roles they are likely to assume after college?

4. Does the college offer courses or co-curricular programs specifically designed to facilitate the college-to-career transition (e.g., resume and portfolio development, locating and interviewing for positions, preparing for and reducing “job shock”)?

5. What specifically does the college do to facilitate seniors’ job placement or career entry?

6. Does the college offer courses or co-curricular programs designed to enhance seniors’ preparation for, and acceptance at graduate or professional schools?

7. Does the college offer senior courses or programs designed to promote effective life planning and decision making with respect to practical life issues they are likely to encounter in adult life after college (e.g., relocation, financial planning, family planning)?

8. What does the college do to encourage a sense of unity and community among the senior class which may serve as a foundation for later alumni networking?



Historically, individual colleges and universities have done very little research on the actual impact or effect they’ve had on students’ learning and development—i.e., how students change from the time they enter the college to the time they graduate. There is now a national movement in higher education toward more assessment of institutional effectiveness and more accountability to the public. For any educational institution to be deemed “high quality,” it should attempt to assess its impact on students, and use these results as feedback for improving its programs and services—as part of an ongoing effort to enhance college quality by continually striving for institutional excellence.

Key Questions to Ask About Institutional Assessment:

1. What is the college's retention rate--what percentage of students who start at the college, actually finish and receive their degree from the college?

Note: Colleges which are very selective or prestigious--accepting students with outstanding high school records—often have high retention rates simply because these schools tend to attract highly able and motivated students and because students may be more willing to stay at a “name” college (even if they're dissatisfied with the school) because they feel that a diploma from such an elite college will open doors for them after graduation. (Research indicates that this assumption isn’t necessarily true). You may want to pay special attention to colleges which are not very selective yet still have high retention rates (e.g., 80% or higher)—this may indicate that students are very satisfied with the educational experience the college is providing.

2. How long does it usually take for full-time students to complete a degree at the college? For instance, one way to get an idea of how difficult it is for students to get the courses they need is by asking some students on campus the following question(s): “Do you usually get all your courses when you register?” “Most of them (e.g., 4 out of 5)?” “Less than half of them?”

Note: It is increasingly common for students to take longer than the usual four years to graduate. This is due to a variety of factors, one being that colleges are not offering enough sections of courses which students need to complete their degree or are not offering them frequently enough. Often, this represents a cost-cutting measure that is growing more common as colleges try to save money during the present economic crisis. (Because of this practice, some colleges are now using the recruitment strategy of offering a “four-year guarantee”—assuring prospective students that if they remain continuously enrolled as full-time students in good academic standing, they will graduate in four years —or their money back.)

3. Are student-opinion or student-satisfaction surveys conducted at the college to assess how students feel about their experience? If so, what do students say are the college's strengths and weaknesses? Has the college attempted to remedy its perceived weaknesses?

4. Are exit interviews conducted with students who decide to leave the college before graduating? Have the results of these student interviews been used to make changes in the college’s programs or policies?

5. Does the college attempt to “track” its students from entry to graduation to assess their learning and development?

6. Does the college follow-up on its graduates (alumni) to find out what they do after graduation and to assess their views of how effective the college has prepared them for life after college (e.g., for graduate school and the work world)? Has the college used these results to improve its curricular or co-curricular programs?


Part II.



The importance of the campus visit is underscored by research indicating that students frequently cite this experience as being the most important factor in their college-selection process (Kealy & Rockel, 1987) and as being much more revealing than reading about the college in its publications or in college-guide books (Bates, 1994). However, campus visits are used less by high school seniors than college publications or college guidebooks (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1986). In one study, many college students warned that "the guides ought to be a supplement to, rather than a substitute for the campus visit or gathering information directly from colleges." As one school-choice guide put it: “On paper, most colleges seem like a dime a dozen” (Nicholson, 1991, p. 29). In fact, some college promotional material is produced primarily by commercial corporations that focus on persuasive marketing and advertising techniques, rather than carefully matching the college's “PR” with its actual practices.



 1. Stand outside the door of several classes and observe the class size and the level of student involvement in the classroom.

For example: Are students asking questions and actively participating in class discussions? Or, does the instructor “lecture” continually for long periods of time, with students doing nothing more than remaining silent, heads down, copying notes—without any active involvement with their instructor, with their classmates, or with the material being presented?

In his book, How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University, Martin Nemko offers this “insider’s secret”:

How much can you learn in a brief look? Plenty! For example, if you’ve peeked into ten

classrooms and have seen nine animated discussions, you've learned something important

about that college. You’ve learned something else if you've seen nine classes filled with

students reading the campus newspaper or with a professor who sounds like a high-

schooler reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (1988, p. 38).

2. Sit in on a class or two.

For example, sit in on an introductory course that you would be taking as a general-education requirement and an upper-division course in a field that you might major as a major, and observe the following:

(a) Does the professor vary the instructional format (e.g., allowing opportunity for student input by means of questioning or small-group discussions; or by using audio-visual aids to illustrate lecture material?)

(b) Does the instructor know and use students' names?

(c) Is the instructor available and willing to talk with students before class, and does s/he stick around awhile after class to answer questions and chat informally with students?

(d) Before the class begins or after it ends, ask some student(s) what they think of the college, and what they think of the quality of teaching and advising at the college in general and in the particular department which you think you might want to major.

Note: Students will often be very interested in sharing their opinions of the college with you because you’ve shown an interest in hearing what they have to say—this may be the very first time anybody has ever bothered to ask them about what their experience has been like at the college! Better yet, ask your high school counselor for names of any students who graduated from your high school and are now attending the college you intend to visit. If you could get some “inside scoop ” from them, you would be getting the scoop from students who are presently making the exact same high school-to-college transition that you may make in the near future. These students could represent an invaluable source of advanced information on whether or not you should come, and what to expect if you do come. Another option is to ask the college you're considering for a list of any present students or recent alumni who may be living in your geographical area. You might then be able to contact these students or alumni and ask them some of the key questions listed in this handout. As one college freshman put it, when asked what was the greatest help in finding a college: “Talk to someone who attends the colleges you are looking at—don’t trust one opinion, get many” (Bates, 1989, p. 89).

3. Take a stroll through the corridors where faculty offices are located and check the posted office hours of faculty. How many office hours do they have per week? Are faculty actually in their offices during their posted office hours?

4. How much student-faculty interaction do you see in faculty offices and other places on campus (e.g., in the cafeteria)? Do faculty seem to greet students on campus and know their names?

Also, consider visiting the department in which you may intend to major and take an especially close look at the quantity and quality of student-faculty interaction. Is there much student-faculty interaction in the offices or in the hallways? Is there a departmental "lounge" or meeting area where students and faculty can, and do congregate? Does there seem to be an “esprit de corps” among faculty and students in the department?

5. Visit the department chairperson in the academic area that you’re considering as a major and ask him/her how students feel about the department. In particular, consider asking the following questions:

(a) What is the department’s educational philosophy regarding the major and how it should be taught?

(b) Have any student-opinion surveys been administered to students majoring in the department?

(c) What percentage of students who begin with a major in the department eventually go on to complete the major?

(d) Do more students switch to the major offered by the department's than switch out of the department into another major?

Note: The courses offered and teaching strategies used in the same academic major can vary widely from college to college; for example, they may vary in terms of the degree to which they emphasize theory/research vs. application/practice, and classroom learning vs. real-world or hands-on experience. In addition to carefully reviewing the college catalogue for information about courses in your intended major, you may ask to schedule a meeting with the department chair when you call the college to set up your campus visit. If you come to this meeting with specific and thoughtful questions, you not only will learn a lot more about the major department at the college you’re considering, you may also be increasing your chances of being accepted at that college. (Also, whether or not the department chair is willing to schedule a meeting with you may in itself say something about the quality and student-centeredness of the department.)

6. Ask the registrar for the schedule of classes and see how many courses are listed as being taught by “staff.”

This doesn’t mean that the instructor is “Dr. Staff”; instead, it indicates that the instructor probably is a yet-to-be-identified part-timer or inexperienced graduate student.

7. During your campus visit, take a look at the information on the bulletin boards, and pick up a copy of the student newspaper (and any other student publications) to get a feel for campus issues and student interests.

8. Ask a college representative if you could review the school's most recent accreditation report.

This document is a summary of the college’s strengths and weaknesses; it includes an institutional self-study and an institutional assessment conducted by a visiting team of outside evaluators. This document should be quite comprehensive and, therefore, quite large. So, it may be best just to review the sections which relate most directly to students (e.g., teaching, curriculum, student-support services).

9. If you are a transfer student, bring a copy of all courses you intend to transfer from your previous college and ask for a “transcript analysis”—to determine how many of your courses will be accepted for credit—and how many will be accepted as “solid” general-education or pre-major credits rather than merely “elective” credits.

Note: By requesting a transcript analysis before enrolling at the college, admissions representatives see that one major factor you're considering in your decision to attend that school is how many of your previous courses will be accepted for transfer credit. Thus, the school may be more willing to accept your courses because it may not want to lose you as a prospective student. In contrast, the usual practice is to have a transcript analysis done after the student has enrolled—and has already become a tuition-paying customer—which puts the college in the “driver’s seat,” and can result in the college arriving at some very arbitrary decisions about denying transfer credit that may be made on the basis of “territoriality” (e.g., we want you to take our course from us and nobody else) or economic self-interest (i.e., the fewer courses accepted for transfer means more courses you take at the transfer college, which translates into longer enrollment and more tuition revenue collected from you).



 1. Is there much student activity on campus?

For example: Do students seem to stay on campus when they're not in class? If they do where do most of them seem to be spending their time (e.g., in the library or the student lounge) and what do they seem to be talking about (e.g., meaningful topics or their latest hangovers)?

Note: If you're an out-of-state student, you might be especially interested in finding out if many students leave the dorms to go home on the weekends, thus leaving you without much peer contact or social life on Friday and Saturday nights.

2. Visit, or spend a night in the dormitories.

What is the atmosphere like? Is it loud or conducive to intimate conversations and studying? Are many students partying on a weekday night? Are the hallways and doors decorated in a manner that suggests this is a good place to live and learn?

3. Check out the flyers and advertisements posted on campus.

For example: Do most of them refer to learning opportunities or beer blasts?

4. Visit the career center and ask about what happens to students after they graduate.

Specific questions you could ask are: (a) How many graduating seniors go on to graduate school or professional school? (b) How many go directly into the work force after graduation? Also, if you're thinking of majoring in a certain field, ask what most graduates in your intended major go on to do after they graduate.

A quality college will have answers to these questions because it is interested in its students --even after they've graduated and are no longer tuition-paying customers. Good colleges are also interested in using this alumni follow-up information as feedback to improve its programs and strengthen its services.



If the college you’re considering has a “visitor’s weekend,” try to take advantage of it and make the weekend visit; however, you still need to see the college during a typical class day in order to get a true feel for the school. Though visitor's weekends are useful, they may be designed principally to showcase or “market” the college, so instead of getting the “real scoop” from the “horse's mouth”—from ordinary, everyday students), you might get an idealized version -from specially-selected students whose function is to serve as ambassadors or sales representatives of the college. This may turn your potentially realistic campus visit into nothing more than an idealistic excursion with Mary Poppins.


Bates, G. A. (1994). The next step: College. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (1986). How do student choose a college? Change, 18(1), pp. 29-32.

Gardner, J. N., Van der Veer, G., & Associates. (1998). The senior year experience: Facilitating integration, reflection, closure, and transition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kealy, M. J., & Rockel, M. L. (1987). Student perceptions of college quality: The influence of college recruitment policies. Journal of Higher Education, 58 (November/December), 683-703.

Nemko, M. (1988). How to get an ivy league education at a state university. New York: Avon Books.

Nicholson, J. M. (1991). A guide to the guides. Change, 23(6), pp. 23-29.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

October 31, 2005 11:11AM
Re: data

I agree entirely. How do you address this situation on your campus? Do you have an orientation for Disability students?

Beverly Walker
Director of Retention Services
Student Success Center
North Central State College
Mansfield , OH

October 31, 2005 11:08PM
Re: guidelines for choosing a college


For additional questions high school students should ask about the college experience, you may want to look at the College FAQ Book: Over 5,000 Not Frequently Asked Questions About College! which I authored.

The book is the companion text to the College Life Skills Course(R) I teach to ninth through 12th graders. It is divided into three parts---FAQs About Getting In, FAQs About Staying In, and FAQs About Getting Out. It covers thirty subject areas from high school preparation to graduate school and is now available on

Because there are no answers in the book, parents, counselors and educators are using it as a conversation starter, to structure the college search process, to plan a college treasure hunt, to assign test questions and to question college officials.

Rozalia Williams, Ed.D.
Hidden Curriculum Education, Inc.
P.O. Box 222041
Hollywood , FL 33022
(954) 457-8098