Avoid These Hidden Money Traps Helpful advice for your college search from our exclusive poll of students
(MONEY Magazine) – As you and your son or daughter search for the right college, keep these surprising facts in mind: -- While most college students today are happy with their schools, undergraduates at colleges with fewer than 5,000 students are more enthusiastic than those at big universities. -- To get into the many overbooked courses required for a bachelor's degree, undergrads are often forced to spend a fifth year on campus -- with all the expenses that entails. Again, this financially punishing problem is more common at big public universities than at small private schools. ; -- And while two-thirds of all undergrads hold jobs to help pay their school bills, the 58% who work more than 10 hours a week are less satisfied with their academic lives than students who work fewer hours. Those are among the significant findings of an exclusive telephone poll of nearly 1,000 undergraduates across the country, conducted for MONEY last spring by ICR Inc. of Media, Pa. (margin of error: plus or minus 3.1%). "We all have stereotypes about college," says Linda Sax, associate director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of CaliforniaPLos Angeles, "but not until you actually hear from students do you find out what the reality is." Here's the reality according to the MONEY poll: Costs curtail choice. Rising tuition, up 46% at public schools and 32% at private schools over the past five years, forced two-thirds of the respondents to make price a major factor in deciding where to enroll. Even the well-to-do are not immune: Half of the students from families earning more than $100,000 a year said money affected their choice. Course closeouts are common. Two out of five students said they have difficulty getting into the courses they need to complete their majors, and half of those fear they will not be able to graduate on time. The problem was twice as common at public colleges than at private schools. Teachers get high marks. Nine out of 10 students said their professors were doing a good job. More than eight out of 10 said the professors were as accessible as the students wanted them to be. Overall satisfaction abounds. Most students -- 85% -- said college met their expectations. About one-third reported most aspects of college were even better than they had expected. However, while 48% feel that college is preparing them "very well" for life after graduation, another 44% say they feel only "somewhat" prepared. Schools are trying to create safe campuses. A full 84% of respondents were satisfied that their college administrators were doing all they could to keep campuses safe from crime. Of the 4% of poll participants who reported being threatened or assaulted on campus over the past year, twice as many men as women said they were victims. Drawing on results of the 30-question poll and on advice from students and education experts, we have created the following insider's guide to what you and your son or daughter should really look for in a college to get the most education for your money.
Smaller is better. Yes, it's hard to beat the excitement of standing in a packed stadium at Ohio State with 91,469 other fans rooting for the home team. But the reality is that the participants in our poll who attended schools with fewer than 5,000 students were more positive about their learning experiences than those at larger institutions. Similarly, undergrads at private schools, which tend to be small, reported more satisfaction than those at public schools. These students were more upbeat about the accessibility of professors and the quality of classroom experiences, housing, safety and preparation for life after graduation. An overwhelming 94% of students at small schools said their teachers were doing a good job, compared with 87% of students at big colleges. However, large universities may provide facilities and possibilities that are important to your child and not available at smaller campuses -- photon microscopes, for example, or multiple libraries or arcane majors such as geodetic science. "One way to get the best of both worlds is to look for crannies of smallness," says Dodge Johnson, a college admissions consultant in Malvern, Pa. State university honors programs, for instance, offer students with outstanding academic records -- typically they come from the top 5% to 10% of their high school graduating classes -- a chance to study with the best professors on campus in classes limited to roughly 20 students. So-called school-within-a-school programs, such as the three residential colleges at Michigan State, provide students with a small-school experience within a large public school atmosphere.
Seeing is believing. Touring a campus before you commit to going there may sound obvious, but one out of five students we polled reported that they never saw their college campus until the first day of freshman orientation. Not surprisingly, these students end up less satisfied with their teachers, classroom experience, accommodations and opportunity to learn from fellow students than those who visited the campus before applying for admission. When you visit, pay attention to whether the atmosphere reflects your child's personality and aspirations. How diverse is the student body? Are most students hanging out on the quad or studying in the library? How friendly are they? Do fraternities dominate campus life? Are the college's facilities well maintained, or is paint peeling off the walls? "This is one of the most | important investment decisions you'll ever make, so it's worth spending a few hundred dollars to check out the merchandise," says Loren Pope, an educational consultant and author of the book Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That's Right for You (Penguin, $10.95). Pope suggests you ask a few professors what they think of the students. "If they say, 'The kids are not intellectually curious,' which has happened to me, you have your answer." In other words, your kid won't be stimulated by peers to stretch academically. When possible, ask the admissions department to arrange for your child to spend a weekend in a dorm. "That's how you will really see what a student's everyday experience is like," says John White, a senior at California Institute of Technology. "Look at the level of stress students have about their work, how difficult they feel the tasks that they've been given are, and how satisfied with college they are overall."
More work means less study. "There is a clear threshold where work becomes a barrier, not only to a student's satisfaction, but to his or her overall academic achievement as well," cautions Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and author of College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (HarperCollins, $12). To survive economically, two-thirds of the students in our survey must hold down paying jobs while in school. And most (58%) work more than 10 hours a week. Unfortunately, students who worked more than 10 hours are markedly less positive about college than others. For instance, they give lower marks overall to their social lives and their ability to meet one-on-one with faculty. Half of students who worked more than 21 hours a week said they could be learning more if they did not have jobs, compared with only one in four of those who worked under 10 hours. Students who worked less than 10 hours a week were generally as satisfied with college as those who did not work at all. If 10 hours a week of paid work won't provide enough money to balance your college budget, consider some alternatives. Encourage your child to increase job hours during the summer when there are no school conflicts. Consider taking out an additional loan, if you are not too burdened already. And in your college search, check out the availability of study jobs on campus -- work that often has slow periods during which students can study. These positions are usually service jobs, such as checking books out of the library, assisting in a lab or serving as a police dispatcher. "They are highly coveted," says James Feeney, a development director in the dean's office at the New College of the University of South Florida. The best place to find study jobs is at the financial aid office, because many of them are available through a school's federally subsidized work/study program. But students should not blatantly request a no-work job, says Feeney. Financial aid officers are unlikely to refer anyone to a job that they think he or she will not take seriously. Instead, he advises, a student should ask if there are "customer service jobs at off hours." Though this approach may seem transparent, Feeney says it really does work. He also urges students to make direct contact with the job supervisor and explain what skills they will bring to the work. Adijatu Abiose, 22, a political science major who graduated from New College last year, found an attractive position on campus as a computer lab assistant. She worked 12 to 15 hours a week answering student questions about IBM computer problems, with plenty of free time. "I could do my schoolwork while I was sitting there," she recalls. "Before that, I had an off-campus job as a cashier at a local grocery store, and that really took a toll."
Class shows. We asked students to rank seven learning methods in order of personal importance. Classroom time was No. 1, with 72% of respondents rating it most useful or very useful. Textbooks, small lab or discussion groups, and contact with fellow students were each considered most useful or very useful by about 64%. One-on-one meetings with instructors (59%), library research (50%) and internships (28%) followed. Says Yolanda Cornejo, 20, a junior at Rice University: "Classroom instruction made me overall a better learner. It helped me broaden my creativity, sharpened my thinking skills and made me more insightful so when I am around the lunch table with other students I feel much more secure speaking to them."
During campus visits, have your child sit in on one or two classes. Ideally, according to the experts, classes should be small -- 20 to 30 students -- especially in elective courses for juniors and seniors. Large lecture classes should break down at least once a week into small discussion groups led by full-fledged faculty members, rather than teaching assistants. And professors should be easily accessible after hours. In conversations with students, ask whether professors make themselves available informally, perhaps by eating lunch in student dining halls. Find out too how often professors generally are in their offices: Are they there at hours when students can conveniently visit, and do they encourage drop-in conversations?
Staying on course. Unless you have no qualms about supporting your child through five-plus years of college, determine whether students are having difficulty registering for required courses. According to our poll, this problem was most extreme at public schools. Nearly half the students at those schools told the pollsters that they had trouble getting into courses required for graduation, and one in four of them feared that closeouts would jeopardize their chances of earning their degrees in four years. By contrast, only 25% of private-school students had problems enrolling in courses they needed to graduate. So, far from saving money, having your child enroll in a public school may in fact cost you an extra year of tuition. And financial aid typically ends after four years. Find out from the admissions office or the registrar what percentage of students graduate in four years and in five. If more than 20% of all graduates need five years, it could be that course closings prevent students from getting out on time. Inquire in particular about the departments your child figures to focus on: How crowded are the classes currently, and are any cutbacks planned? Some schools, such as DePauw, a private college in Indiana, now guarantee that students will be able to earn degrees in four years or can stay on for a fifth at no cost.
Big fears. Despite widely publicized -- and admittedly worrisome -- incidents of murder, sexual assault and hate crimes on campuses, remember that only 4% of students report having been threatened or assaulted, compared with 7% of 20- to 24-year-olds who actually have been victims of a violent crime in the general population. Also, keep in mind that 84% of the students in our survey believe their colleges are doing all that can be done to protect them. Most colleges have made their campuses safer over the past five years, according to Dorothy Siegel, executive director and founder of the Campus Violence Prevention Center at Towson State University in Maryland, a research center that studies incidents, causes and correlations of campus violence. This has come about thanks to efforts by groups such as Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization that educates the public on campus crimes and has created a national campaign to tighten security measures at all colleges. The University of Illinois-Chicago, for instance, has emergency telephone kiosks, 24-hour student escort and patrol services and free van rides for students, faculty and administration until 2 a.m. Marie Tyse, the university's chief of police, says that, as a result of people using the emergency telephone systems, a number of criminals have been either caught while committing crimes or driven off. Even though twice as many men as women reported being victims of threats or assaults, only 7% of the men polled said they worried about their safety, compared with 23% of the women. "Women in general feel less safe in society than men," says Siegel, "so it is not surprising that they feel more vulnerable on campus." And the larger the school, the more fear there was. Nearly one in five students at schools with more than 10,000 students said they felt in danger on their campus, compared with one in 14 at schools with fewer than 2,000 students. Find out what the administration is doing to protect students at schools your son or daughter is considering. Studies by Siegel's organization have shown a high correlation between campus crime and alcohol consumption. For instance, at Towson State University, 100% of the violent crimes committed in the past 15 years have been caused by students under the influence of alcohol. So be sure to ask admissions officers what the administration is doing to combat flagrant alcohol abuse and how often the college sponsors dry events. And talk to students; they'll give you the lowdown on how hard kids party and whether there is a school escort service to drive drunken students home.
Dormitory bliss. According to our poll, students who lived on campus were more satisfied with important aspects of college -- including social life and their contact with faculty members outside of class -- than those who did not. "It's an instant community," says Cal Tech's John White. Students with housing on campus also reported feeling more prepared for life after college than those living away from the school. The reason, Sax suggests, may be because students living together tend to share information such as how to study for exams, how to find jobs and how to apply for graduate school. In addition, says Pope, campus life provides an opportunity for students to develop social skills. "The shelf life of what you learn in the classroom is pretty short," he observes. "It's the intangible aspects of college, like bull sessions at night over the meaning of life, the nature of government or value systems, that make college most precious." Be sure to explore the various housing opportunities on campus and in the surrounding community. Find out about the availability of dormitory rooms. Inquire about special-interest rooming -- say, dorm suites for French language or physics majors. And check out the options for off-campus housing, since living close to campus in a house full of other students may prove just as beneficial as being in a dorm.