A good start to determining the value of a college program, before you spend $100,000 or more over the next 20 plus years in loan payments, is to do the following – these are my suggestions for seeking the true value of a college program:
Contact Graduates : Contact as many graduates as possible; especially those who graduated from the program you’re interested in. Contact people who have graduated recently, and not so recently. Make sure they’re of different ages, and ask them open ended questions, such as, “What can you tell me about the program and your experiences with it?” What do these graduates have to say about the college and your program of interest? Did the program prepare them for professional life? Did they get the job they wanted? Do they network with other graduates, or have they in the past? Are they working in the field they studied; if not, why? Are they carrying a lot of student debt? Use LinkedIn or Facebook to locate graduates, and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions – it’s too important not to.
Online Reviews (caution): Online reviews are not all bad, but you have to be smart about who you’re reading. Pay attention to their language – make sure they’re being reasonable and professional. If a student is complaining about the college program because his instructor failed him, or because of Financial Aid reasons, don’t pay attention to his review – he’s not being reasonable. Online reviews can be very helpful, but you’ll have to read a lot of them to start seeing common themes, the good and the bad.
Call Employers : Start with people you know. Do you know anyone who works in Human Resources, owns their own business, interviews people regularly, or manages? Ask them what they would think of your college of choice and the program you’re considering. Be bold and call employers in the field you’re interested in – ask to speak with directors and interview them. You may get some busy directors who can’t talk long, but it’ll be worth it. Ask them how they would value the program you’re interested in paying for.
Research: Use professional websites like National Center for Education Statistics and White House College Report Card to do your own research. Don’t just use those two links, but read legitimate magazines and journals to find as much information as you can about your college. The New York Times may place your college of choice in the top 10, and Forbes may place it in the bottom 10. Don’t get overwhelmed with the information – keep it simple, and search for true value.
Things to research include: Graduation rates, student retention rates, job placement stats, what services are offered to current students and alumni, student loan default rates, accreditation, program length, transfer credit policies, leave of absence policy, attendance policy, penalties for withdrawing or receiving poor grades, grading scale, enrollment stats, admissions process (Do they care if you’re prepared for their program, or do they just want your payments?), average net price for a student (the total cost of the program minus aid/loans/grants/scholarships), tuition rates (How much and how fast have they been increasing?), book costs (Are they included in the price of tuition, or do you purchase the books separately?), room/board/commuting costs, and nature of program (What classes make up your program, and are any certifications included?).
Use Your Gut : After you spoke with graduates, employers, and did your research to find out as much as possible about the university, then pay attention to your gut. Review the information you obtained thoroughly – I recommend doing so three different times. If you feel like you’re gambling by jumping into the program without having all the information you need, don’t do it! If you need more time to interview graduates and employers, take the time. As mentioned in a previous post, no big investment should be made on emotion.
Don’t make the mistake of neglecting to put in sufficient time and energy for determining the true value of a college program. The more information you have before enrolling, the better, so ask the big questions!