(MONEY Magazine) – WHAT MAKES A COLLEGE great? To parents it's a school that delivers top-quality education at reasonable cost, such as one of this MONEY Guide's top 100 values (see page 14). To students, however, a truly terrific college offers a small-community atmosphere as well as professors committed both to teaching--not research--and to giving students lots of individual attention, both in and out of the classroom. In addition, students say that a great college must provide them with a rich social life, plenty of opportunities to live on campus and ample courses.

We drew those conclusions about students from MONEY's second annual telephone survey of nearly 1,000 undergraduates, conducted by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa. (margin of error: plus or minus 3.1%). Our poll delivers important information for parents who are about to embark on a college search with their son or daughter. It provides guidance not only on what to look for when you visit a campus but also on what questions to ask to find the school that's right for your child.

Our poll's major findings, compared with those of our survey a year earlier:

Rising costs are taking a greater toll. Annual tuition hikes have slowed from a startling 12% at public colleges in the 1991-92 school year and 7% for private ones to 6% overall for 1994-95. Nonetheless, 67% of students say that financial considerations influenced their choice of college, up from 61% a year earlier. And more students are taking on paying jobs to meet expenses. Nearly 70% of students work now, up from 66%.

Course availability remains a major problem. A sizable 44% of all students--two percentage points more than a year earlier--say they have trouble getting into courses required for their majors. Nearly 30% of private school students report difficulty enrolling in courses, up from 25% a year earlier. But the problem is most acute at public schools, where half of students with enrollment difficulties say they fear course closeouts will prevent them from graduating on time.

Campuses are safer. Almost half (45%) of students report that security on their campuses is better than a year earlier. At private schools kids feel less threatened by crime than at publics.

Students remain satisfied. Nine out of 10 say they are pleased with their education. Nine out of 10 also believe their college is preparing them well for later life, the same proportion as a year earlier. And teachers continue to receive praise. A full 88% of students say their professors are good--about the same percentage as in the previous poll.

Although choosing a college is based in part on personal preferences, two particular findings of our survey warrant strong consideration during your search.

First, think small. Kids at colleges with 2,000 or fewer students say they are more satisfied with their education, have less difficulty enrolling in courses and feel safer on campus than those at larger schools. Likewise students at private schools, which are generally smaller than the publics, give higher marks to their teachers and their overall education.

Key finding No. 2: Dorm life wins. Students who live on campus report they are happier with their social lives than those who live at home or off campus. Moreover, the kids who live in dorms find it easier to get access to teachers, express less frustration about getting into required courses, and feel better prepared for life after college.

With those considerations as a foundation, plus additional input from the students Money Guide polled and the education experts we interviewed, we suggest the following strategies for finding a school that will enable your child to get the most out of the college experience:

See for yourself. If you've been reluctant to zigzag across the country (or even your state) to check out colleges, consider this: According to our poll, 71% of students say the campus visit was the most useful strategy in helping them choose a college. And more than half of all poll participants wish they had visited even more schools than they did.

Spending time at a college gives kids a chance to observe how students live and work and to determine whether the overall atmosphere is appealing. Our poll results show that by three to two, students who visited their schools before applying are happier with their fellow students than those who never visited. Those who visited campuses are also more positive about their teachers and how well college is preparing them for life.

When inspecting a campus, try to arrive on a Saturday and leave on a Monday night. That will enable your child to see school in session for a morning and an afternoon. Kids should arrange to stay in the dorms to experience the weekend social life as well as the daily grind of attending classes. Your son or daughter should observe how students spend their time. Do they watch hours of TV? Do they leave their room doors open, distracting others with blaring music? Is the campus dominated by fraternities and, if so, is that appealing? "The most powerful influence on students is not the curriculum but co-curricular activities--like cultural and sports events and clubs," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "You should be deeply concerned about the richness of the experience outside the classroom as well as inside."

Your child should pay particular attention to whether students are cynical or affectionate in describing their schools. For Cristina Colon, 21, a senior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey, school spirit was an important factor in her college choice. "When I visited Rutgers, everyone was so gung-ho," she says happily.

For many kids, the thrill of college is being among scholars and students who are at the forefront of their fields. Says Rocco Maglio, 19, a junior at MONEY Guide's No. 1 college buy, New College of the University of South Florida: "An ideal college is one where there is excitement from new discoveries. For example, when something gets published, like in a math journal, or a substance is invented, that's exciting. It's intense when it's like that. It's really cool." A campus visit can help kids who seek such academic excitement determine if they are at a school with kindred souls.

Listen to peers. Don't put too much faith in guidance counselors. Asked to assess seven potential aids in choosing a college, the students we polled said high school guidance counselors had been the least useful. What is most helpful, right behind campus visits, is advice from friends, say 54%. Next, in order: guidebooks, advice from parents, campus interviews and talking to alumni of prospective schools. In fact, more than a third of students surveyed wish they had listened less to guidance counselors. Students say that counselors are often out of touch with what is happening on specific college campuses.

"Students take their peers' advice very seriously," says George Kuh, a professor of higher education at Indiana University. But educational consultant Phyllis S. Steinbrecher of Westport, Conn. and New York City warns that "talking to two high school friends is not enough. Also get peer input at the college level."

Indeed, more than half of students polled say they regret not consulting more college students during their search. Undergrads can speak knowledgeably about their schools' workloads, course availability, campus safety and whether the attractive qualities portrayed in the catalogues resemble reality.

Sit in on classes. Our poll asked students what has been important in helping them to learn while in college. The answer, from 69%, is classroom lectures, followed by textbooks (64%), fellow students (61%), labs and discussions (59%) and contact with faculty (57%). This is not surprising, says Ernest Pascarella, a professor of higher education at the University of Illinois in Chicago and co-author of How College Affects Students (Jossey-Bass, $45). He explains: "Good class time teaches more than just content. It affects a student's ability to think critically, to analyze arguments and test hypotheses."

Small classes of 20 or so students are best for learning, say education experts. Ultimately, however, it's not the size that counts so much as how the class is taught, according to Syracuse University professor Vincent Tinto, author of Leaving College (University of Chicago, $23.95). Among schools that "are moving seriously to innovate classroom techniques," he says, are the University of Minnesota, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. and Alverno College in Milwaukee. To personalize 120-student classes at Minnesota, for example, Karl Smith, an associate professor of civil engineering, divides them into clusters of three or four students. Then he assigns them to work together in class on difficult engineering problems.

On a campus visit, your child should attend classes and ask students what they think of their teachers. Are professors easy to approach outside of office hours? Do they offer their home phone numbers to students? And do they seem to enjoy teaching? "More important than anything else in college is how committed teachers are to teaching and to their students," says Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Research graduation rates. Even at the best colleges, students are finding it harder to graduate in four years. This is evidenced by the four-percentage-point increase in a year among private school students who say they have had trouble enrolling in required classes. Nearly half of the 44% of public and private college students who have experienced course closeouts fear they won't be able to earn degrees on time.

So unless you're ready to pay an extra year of college bills, research the graduation rates at the schools your child wants to attend. For example, while only 42% of students on average graduate in four years, the most highly selective schools have four-year graduation rates of roughly 75%. In addition to studying statistics supplied by the college, ask upperclassman how much trouble they have registering for courses required for graduation. And be sure to assess the course availability in any prospective major, because some academic departments may be more crowded than others.

Check out jobs. Unless your child will be among the fortunate minority who don't have to work to help pay school bills, find out what work opportunities are available. According to our survey, a job that requires more than 20 hours a week can interfere with school. The two out of five students in our study who say they spend that much time at jobs report having more trouble enrolling in courses than those who work fewer hours. Moreover, the overemployed say they are less happy with their social lives and feel less prepared for life after college. (For information on the types of student jobs that pay the most money and interfere least with studies, see "A Financial Survival Guide for College Students" on page 59.)

Investigate on-campus housing. If your child can live on campus, encourage him to do so, especially for the first two years. Despite the cachet of an off-campus pad, students who live in dorms tend to be happier than those who don't. According to our poll, dorm dwellers are 50% more satisfied with their social lives than those who live off campus and 1E times more satisfied than those who live at home. Students in dorms also report less difficulty in getting into required courses and meeting with teachers outside of class. One reason: It's easier for students who live on campus to chase down professors or spend more time asking the registrar to add a class section. "Living off campus you're kind of detached," says Rutgers senior Colon.

Many students--three out of five in our poll--are unable to live on campus, either for financial reasons or because there is simply not enough dorm space. If that's the case with your child, encourage him or her to "look for ways to become a part of the community," says educational consultant Steinbrecher. "Join an intramural sports team or contribute to the school newspaper. Involvement is a key to having a happy college life."

Ask about special programs. Large universities often sponsor small academic communities that provide individualized attention. They offer students an opportunity to experience the excitement and resources of a big school, along with small-school amenities and comforts such as small classes and more one-on-one time with teachers. If your child is an academic star, he or she might consider an honors program, which generally means classes of only 20 or so students taught by the best professors on campus.

Some colleges also have special residences--often called living/learning centers--where students live and take classes together. According to research by University of Illinois professor Pascarella, students in these residences have lower dropout rates, learn more and end up more satisfied with their college experience than the average student.

Large universities like the University of Oregon (13,000 undergrads) and the University of Washington (33,000) offer special freshman programs in which 20 to 25 students take all their classes together and attend a joint study group once a week. "This provides each student with a small community of peers who help one another negotiate their way through college," says Tinto. At Washington, for example, incoming freshmen can choose between programs focused on health sciences or on business. Students who participate in these programs generally feel more positive about themselves and their ability to learn, according to Tinto.

Ask about security. Although 45% of students we surveyed say their campuses are more secure than a year ago, crime remains a prominent concern at some colleges. Two out of 10 poll participants from schools with more than 10,000 students report that they worry about their safety, compared with just one out of 10 at the smallest colleges (fewer than 2,000 students). At private schools, only 13% of students say they feel threatened, vs. 18% at public schools.

So check out a college's security programs and crime records. Under Title II of the federal Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act, colleges are required to report crime statistics, which are typically published in the schools' catalogues or are available from admissions offices. Warning: These figures reflect only on-campus crimes and don't indicate how dangerous the surrounding community may be. In addition, notes Alan Lizotte, executive director of the Consortium for Higher Education Campus Crime Research at the State University of New York at Albany, the stats are given in absolute numbers, not rates per student. That makes it virtually impossible to compare one school with another.

As a result, don't rely completely on numbers. Ask students how safe they feel on campus. And talk to administration officials about current or planned measures to prevent crime. At Rice University in Houston, for instance, all but one entrance is blocked to cars at 11:30 each night. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently decided to install metal detectors to identify weapons at certain campus parties for more than 250 people.

Also inquire about alcohol and drug education programs. According to a 1994 study by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 95% of violence-related campus crimes are alcohol- or drug-related. Ask students how big a part drinking plays in the campus social life. And ask how seriously the administration takes issues like date rape and hazing. After all, there's no more basic requirement in picking a college than your child's safety.