Each year, Kiplinger magazine puts out a list of the best college values. I encourage you to check it out, but come back to this post. There’s a critical discussion we need to have as parents and communities around what makes a college a good value for our children. And, there are practical steps you can take as a parent to make the value decision for your family.
What makes one particular college more of a value than others? That’s an interesting question to wrap your mind around when you’re doing a college search for your high schooler. I don’t care for lists of the “best colleges”, like the famous one put out by U.S. News (no link, since I don’t believe in that list!). Leaving aside the very real problems U.S. News has been criticized for with how they evaluate colleges, and how colleges massage the data to get better rankings, the fundamental problem is that “best” is a massively subjective term when it comes to your family.
I don’t think the “best” colleges, like the Ivy League, are a good fit for your student—financially, academically, or emotionally. Don’t look to those top colleges for the best fit. But, there are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and focusing on “value” is a more effective way to winnow down the list.
We first need to acknowledge that “value” for something as important as a college is going to have several facets. It can’t be just a ratio, like the price compared to the amount of admitted students. Instead, focus on several key areas of value. Kiplinger does a great job of breaking these down into factors of competitiveness, quality, and cost and financial aid. I’ll add some thoughts as to how you can handle this value decision as a family.
This usually has to do with how many students are admitted who apply, how many actually enroll, and the quantity of students with high scores on the ACT and SAT. I generally think these measures are overrated in traditional rankings of colleges.
Here’s why: these competitiveness rankings are a second-degree marker of the thing you really want in a school—a strong faculty with powerhouse departments. If your student is interested in engineering, you want faculty who are stand-outs in physics, chemistry, and biology, with lots of applied knowledge.
Is it good if lots of bright kids apply to the same college and plan to go there? Sure, of course it’s useful to have smart students in your same classes. But, none of these competitiveness factors measure the faculty, and the quality of those departments has a very real impact on the quality of your child’s degree.
What you can do as a family—be clear and direct with your kids about what they want from college academically. Are they interested in the liberal arts, pre-med, pre-law? Focus your searches on colleges that are strong in those departments and dig deep into understanding the skills and qualities of the faculty and coursework. Far better to find the right school with the departments your child needs than to just gun for a competitive school that isn’t going to give your child a leg up with a high-quality degree.
These are the crux of what you’re looking for to get the most value. Graduation rates, especially how many students graduate in four years, is a key indicator. If the school is not setup to move students through in four years, chances are your child could be left trying to get into full classes or missing key courses. As an added negative, you’ll end up paying for a fifth year of college!
Another good indicator is how many first-year students are retained to the sophomore year. This can help you identify schools with cultures focused on supporting kids in their transition to college and finding the right fit academically for the students.
A final marker of quality is the ratio of students to professors. If the ratio is low, like 15:1, that means students have more access to professors, in and out of the classroom. And access to the profs is critical for doing well in school. Now, keep in mind these are averages—your kid may still end up in an intro Bio course with 100 other students, that’s okay. That just means upper-level courses later will have many fewer students, which is great!
What you can do as a family—on your campus tour, ask about the four-year graduation rate, and what the college does to make sure students graduate on time. Also, check what support systems are in place to help first-year students who are struggling. That might be your child! Ask about counseling and academic support options, which are critical for retaining students. Finally, sit in on some upper-level courses, to see how professors interact in a smaller-class setting.
This is kind of a mess in the Kiplinger data and methodology. They give points based on lowest total cost, but it’s almost impossible to say that colleges have a set cost for everybody once you find out how they dole out financial aid. It’s almost irrelevant to your family’s actual choice, since you’ll need to evaluate the deal you can get at each individual college. Is it useful as a starting point? I’m not so sure.
Further, the magazine gives points for highest percentage of need met (that’s good!), and for students without need who get merit aid (also good). But, those factors are only meaningful to certain families, and it might not be your family. The sum result of these cost and financial aid markers is that you can’t really point to the best ‘value’ in the list, unless you know which type of family you are (high need or low need).
What you can do as a family—determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and that will give you a much better idea of how to find value in this part of the list. Are you a high-need or low-need family for financial aid? Once you know that, focus in on those data points, either in Kiplinger’s list or on the College Board site.
I generally like the Kiplinger approach to finding ‘value’ colleges, although I’m not a big fan of how competitiveness makes its way into the rankings. All in all, the list is a great place to start looking for those colleges that are a good mix of cost and academics.
With that note, see below for the list of Iowa colleges and universities that made it onto the value list. Are there any surprises? Does the list of value strike you as much different from our normal rankings of how “good” a college is, what’s “best” for your student?
If you need more information on how to find value in a school that’s right for your child, drop me a line!