As you research colleges, you’ll notice that they share a lot of statistics: The number of countries where students have studied abroad. How many faculty members have doctorates. Even the number of books in the library. So many statistics! And this doesn’t even include all the admitted student averages, from GPA to test scores to average height and weight—okay, we’re kidding about that last one (we hope).
In this sea of numbers, what really matters?
You’re probably paying attention to the numbers that help you figure out how likely you are to get into the college. What’s the average ACT score, and how selective is the school anyway? Those are helpful statistics in figuring out which colleges truly fit your academic profile. But! You also need to find the statistics for what happens to students after they show up on campus—and well after they leave.
Here are some important numbers to look for when researching colleges:
- Graduation rate: How many first-year students graduate, and how long do they take? Ask for the four-year graduation rate if you’re planning to get a bachelor’s degree. That being said, it’s getting harder to find out how many students graduate in four years. You’ll probably notice it’s easier to find out how many students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years instead of four. Another thing: students who transfer don’t show up in graduation rates.
- Retention rate: How many freshmen come back for a second year? The higher this number is, the more satisfied students are.
- Percentage of students who live on campus: If you’re going to live at home, will you be able to carpool to class with fellow commuters? If you want to live in a residence hall, will most of your friends be nearby for impromptu pizza parties?
- Percentage of students who use the career center: Do students visit career advisors for help with résumés and internships? Are they satisfied enough to go back?
- Diversity: What’s the female-to-male ratio? How many states are represented in the student body? How many countries? How many religions? How likely are you to meet different kinds of people in college?
- Average class size: This tells you how big your classes are likely to be. Or not. If freshmen take a lot of classes in auditoriums but seniors take tiny six-person seminars, the average class size is still going to look pretty low. “No one is going to say, ‘Our class size is 400,’” says Karen Full, enrollment strategist for college consulting firm Longmire and Company. Research class particulars to determine where the numbers really come from.
And here are some numbers that—on their own—don’t tell you much, according to the experts. You may have to dig deeper to get the full story behind them.
- Student-faculty ratio: Some professors work in labs, not classrooms. “Student-to-faculty ratio is sort of meaningless if the faculty don’t teach,” says W. Kent Barnds, Vice President of Enrollment, Communication, and Planning at Augustana College.
- Number of student clubs: Sheer variety is less important than if the college has clubs you like. (Most schools are very good about helping students start clubs if there’s enough interest on campus too!)
- Job placement rate: Colleges ask their alumni if they got jobs or started graduate school after earning a degree. They ask if alumni have jobs related to their majors. But the job placement rate doesn’t include graduates who never responded to the surveys. And it doesn’t tell you about alumni who decided to work in fields completely different from what they majored in.
- Medical school placement rate: Depending on the college, Barnds says, this number could mean just about anything. Maybe the pre-med placement rate is the total number of seniors who got into medical school before they graduated. Or maybe it’s only the number of pre-med majors who got in. Maybe it doesn’t count students who applied to medical school even though their professors told them they should try another career.
So, where do you find these helpful (and not so helpful) numbers and statistics?
The schools you’re looking at might not be the best source. “There are colleges that are very transparent and others that will use the data to say whatever they want to,” Barnds says. He points to the National Center for Education Statistics, which collects the same numbers in the same way, so you can make side-by-side comparisons.
Statistics can tell part of the story about what makes each school unique. These numbers have stories behind them. So when you see a number, Full says to ask, “What does that number mean—and what could that mean to me?”