My Turn: Finding the best college ‘Fit’ – Part I

My Turn: Finding the best college ‘Fit’ – Part I

By Robert A. Scott

This is the time of year when many families and their high school students visit colleges near and far. Some visits may be to local campuses thought to be within reach academically and financially while others may be distant in terms of admissions competition and expense. Whichever the choice, or both, it is imperative for family members and prospective college students to plan carefully. After deciding on where to visit, call for interview appointments, ask to sit in on a class and talk to a faculty member and current students, visit a residence hall, and check out the dining hall. These are some of the characteristics of a good “fit” between the student and the campus.

In this, Part I, I describe the strategy for campus visits and the federal College Scorecard as a tool for helping families and prospective students navigate the college admissions process and find the best “fit” between the student and a campus.

Many colleges offer virtual information sessions and interactive tours. These and admissions open houses provide opportunities to hear from campus leaders as well as students and decide on where to visit.

In preparing for campus visits, students and families should consider the characteristics of institutions to visit. How far from home is acceptable? Will the student be most comfortable in a large city, a suburban setting, or a rural area? Will the student live on campus, in the town, or at home?

How large a campus is acceptable? Some universities have 50,000 or more students and some colleges have fewer than 2,500. How does the large university create smaller communities on campus? The academic program should be challenging enough without the added challenge of potential anonymity at a large institution. The best fit is one that is challenging for academic and personal growth but also is focused on student success.

Is the admissions selectivity of the college or university such that the student would be an average applicant, an above average applicant or would the campus represent a “stretch” because of the competition?

In other words, families and students should engage in research using publicly available sources such as college guides and the federal College Scorecard to decide on a list of 10 or 12 colleges to examine in detail. Visit a nearby campus to practice your college visit strategies. The high school counselor should be helpful with information about past students who have entered a particular college and have a library of guidebooks and college catalogs.

The College Scorecard

The College Scorecard can be a useful tool for examining general data about colleges and comparing colleges to each other, but it cannot convey the complexity of an institution. A publication such as the “Fiske Guide to Colleges” gives a better picture of a campus. The data in the Scorecard include the following elements.

*Size: Large, small, and medium; they each have benefits.

*Graduation rates: Graduation rates below 60% can suggest a poor fit between those admitted and the campus environment.

*Salary after completing a degree: The actual salary depends upon the degree earned and the job itself. This is not the best indicator of “fit” between the student and the college.

*Average annual cost for tuition and fees, room and board, books, and supplies, minus the average amount for grants and scholarships for federal aid recipients. When comparing colleges, whether public or private, calculate the net price. It is often the case that a private college will charge a lower net price than a public institution with a lower published tuition rate.

*Fields of study available: A student might have a first choice but should be aware that he or she will learn about new fields in the first year or two.

*Financial aid, median student debt, percentage with federal loans, percentage of borrowers in default on loans. These are important indicators of financial “fit.”

*Characteristics of the student body, including the number of undergraduates, the percentage enrolled full-time, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants (a surrogate for the socio-economic status of students), racial and ethnic diversity: Does the student want homogeneity or a rich diversity that can foster personal growth?

*Acceptance rate of applicants: This can be an indication of how selective the admissions competition is.

*SAT and ACT ranges of accepted students: These are additional measure of admissions competition. Are they required? How do such scores compare in importance to the curriculum pursued in high school, the grades earned, and teacher recommendations?

These are important indicators to examine; they can help narrow the field of campuses to visit in seeking the best “fit” between a student and a college.

This is the conclusion of Part I of Finding the Best College Fit. Part II will appear next week.

Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University; Author, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019


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  1. Hi Bob:
    Everything you indicate is on target. Fit is the key to success in college. I also would add certain colleges offer academic scholarships regardless of family income that students should
    look into. For athletes students should note Division 1 and Division and 2 schools offer athletic scholarships but Division 3 does not. For athletes preparation of a film of performance should
    be sent to each schools coach that they would want to attend.

  2. I certainly wish I had read this before my children selected colleges to visit. It would have saved time traversing the country and applications to schools that were not a fit.


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