The drive to get admitted can produce serious blinders. Students and parents face tremendous pressure just getting through the admissions process and it's easy to end up focusing on little else. After a while, just "getting in" is all that matters.

Admissions myopia can overwhelm students and their parents for a couple of reasons. First, buying a college education is unlike purchasing most other products and services because the seller reserves the right to say "no" in the form of a rejection letter. Second, the family and peer pressure can get intense when friends and relatives continually ask, "Where are you going to college next year?" The silent response is, "Well, maybe nowhere if I don't get in somewhere."

The result: students apply to five, six or more colleges with one or two "safety schools" thrown into the hopper. On top of that, you have financial aid forms for each university, state and federal (FAFSA) forms, plus supplying current income tax returns. All this paperwork takes time away from discovering what you really need to know about a school. To compound matters, what you need to know isn't readily available.

So what do smart college shoppers do to overcome admissions myopia, and gather the right information to make sure they are NOT getting accepted to the wrong school – or even worse, deciding to attend the wrong institution?

Smart college shoppers overcome admissions myopia by starting with the end in mind – graduation. First, they make sure they've selected schools that have a good track record graduating students in 4 years or less. That's not a given. The average is now 6.2 years for public universities. So smart shoppers begin their search at the Education Trust's website, http://www.edtrust.org, where they click on "Resources" and then "Data Tools" and enter the name of a college or university. Up pops average graduation times for four and six years, plus lots of other useful information, like net prices (tuition less likely financial aid), and the percentage who transfer to other colleges.

For instance, Harvard has four- and six-year graduation rates of 86 percent and 97 percent. All the Ivy colleges have similar rates. By contrast, the flagship campus at Amherst for the University of Massachusetts has four- and six-year graduation rates of 54 percent and 70 percent. The four-year rate for the University of New Hampshire is a bit higher at 60 percent. Unlike the Ivies, the four-year averages for flagship campuses of state universities can vary greatly; e.g., 68 percent for University of California at Berkeley versus an abysmal 34 percent for Louisiana State University.

But that's just a start. Smart shoppers know that university-wide averages are often misleading. One department within a university may graduate students quickly, while others can take forever. In other words, a department within UNH or LSU may be graduating students at a four-year rate equal to Harvard's rate. So as a second step, smart shoppers need to estimate the approximate graduation rates at the department level. Sorry, there's no easy online source for department graduation rates. As I said, some of this information isn't readily available. Here's where you need to contact faculty teaching in the department, as well as students currently enrolled in or who have graduated from the department.

How? Call the department and ask for names of professors and students who can interview. Particularly before you visit the campus. If the department is on the ball, they will schedule a professor to sit down with you and map out your program for two to four years. If you can only reach students or faculty by phone or email, ask about class sizes for the major or program area. Smaller is better than bigger at the undergraduate level. Smart college shoppers seek departments with small classes to maximize learning. Ask if senior professors are teaching these classes, or are they relying on graduate assistants to make the best of a difficult situation. Ask if professors do their own grading and student advising. Ask students if they are on track to graduate in four years or less. For those who've graduated, ask if they had to resort to more student loans than they anticipated in order to graduate. Ask if they felt their professors were responsive in terms of making sure they graduated in four years or less.

Is all this effort worth it? My calculations show that an extra semester or year can have a huge impact on what you finally pay for college. Besides extra tuition, fees, books, room, meals, etc., students often need more debt to complete their education. And when you include foregone earnings, the additional cost can be staggering.

None of this means students should ignore issues associated with admissions, but don't get so focused on getting admitted to a particular school that you forget to ask some vital questions – not just about getting in, but also about getting out on time.

•••

Robert Ronstadt, PhD, is a former vice president of Boston University. He advises parents and students about finding, selecting, and paying for college. Contact him at 603-998-4364 or robertronstadt@gmail.com to learn more about how he can help you save money, limit college loans, and reduce stress.

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