Help your child find the right school— and succeed there
1. Does this school have the campus life they’re looking for?
DIVERSE PROGRAMS such as Greek organizations, campus ministries, student government, honors programs, band, choir, theater and pre-professional organizations all help students grow. Warren Edminster, executive director of the Honors College at Murray State University (MSU), says students need a “large enough student body to ensure diverse academic programs and an exciting college atmosphere, but small enough that faculty know and form good working relationships with the students.”
Jace Lux, director of admissions at Western Kentucky University (WKU), agrees that students who are connected from day one have a greater chance at success. So prospective students should look for more than a long list of extracurricular activities—find out how easily a student can get plugged in.
2. Where will they live and what will they eat?
CAMPUSES VARY WIDELY in the style of dorms and food options. If possible, schedule in-person visits to the campuses to see what they offer. If a student wants to move off campus, find out how many credit hours the university requires to do so and whether housing is available.
Lux explains that parents shouldn’t focus solely on out-of-pocket costs like room and board when choosing a college, but on the value for the money. “In the higher education context, value is about the depth of experience and support offered. Living/learning residence programs, where students have the opportunity to live around students with the same interests, are just one way WKU provides a structure for success,” he says.
3. Can they stay healthy?
A STUDENT’S HEALTH is about more than one virus, though you need to find out how the school is handling COVID-19 regulations and vaccinations. Does the school have free health services, and do those services cover counseling and mental health?
Does the school offer a fitness center? If allergies or dietary restrictions are a concern, find out whether the school offers accommodations. Ask how the buildings are sanitized—not just surfaces, but heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems; plus mold remediation and insect prevention.
4. Are they excited about this option?
A SMALL DEGREE OF GRIEF AND ANXIETY are natural for students and parents as roles begin to change, but guard against resentment surrounding the school choice. Is the distance concerning? Is the financial commitment stressful or the career goal unsettled?
A student may not like hearing that a dream school isn’t possible, but being honest and realistic may prevent future conflict. Have difficult conversations so the whole family can picture the student thriving before ever setting foot on campus.
“Sometimes we don’t give our children enough credit in making a great college choice,” says Monica Bamwine, director of graduate enrollment at Campbellsville University. “If they’re pairing a ‘hard’ element such as a strong academic program with a ‘soft’ element like feeling accepted and welcome, there’s a great likelihood the choice is a good one.”
5. Does this school have a desired degree program and why is it better than other schools?
COMPARE PROGRAMS, from coursework to hands-on training. Just because a university offers something as a major doesn’t mean it’s a strong program. Ask which programs are sought after by job recruiters. Midway University’s nursing program is a good example of this. “Health care organizations are waiting for us to graduate nurses so they can hire them immediately. Education is becoming that way, too. We need strong young adults to step up to support these fields,” explains Ashley Dudgeon, Midway’s director of undergraduate admissions.
Parents can ask personal contacts who are successful in their child’s chosen field what to look for in a program. Confirm that the program is accredited: many licensing agencies, such as those for engineering or medical-related careers, require a degree accredited by specific organizations. Students should be encouraged to schedule conversations with professors from their major at their schools of choice. Having a sense of camaraderie with faculty is perhaps more important than having the highest rated program.
6. What kind of academic support can a student get?
ASK WHETHER THE UNIVERSITY OFFERS study groups and tutoring. Do professors hold office hours to answer questions? Who teaches the majority of the classes, professors or teaching assistants? If classes are conducted online, find out whether the digital platform is easy to use. If possible, have the prospective student sit in on both in-person and online classes before making a final school selection.
7. Can this school help a child create a career?
HANDS ON EXPERIENCE has been added to most of Kentucky’s degree programs so students can get a greater feel for their careers. Team and project based learnings, internships and co-op placements help students start building a resume while still in school.
Parents can also check out the job placement services offered by a school. Look for career counseling, resume and cover letter development, career fairs, Handshake (an online career management platform) and a career closet with gently used business/professional clothing.
8. How long will it take?
MOST BACHELOR’S DEGREE PROGRAMS require four years, but it is possible to graduate in less time. If students enter college with dual credit or Advanced Placement credits, they may be able to shorten the university stay by a year or more. Some schools offer a quarter schedule, summer classes or abbreviated winter terms in January that help students complete their degrees more quickly.
On the other hand, some programs may require more than four years. The University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering typically requires a five-year commitment, but students experience relevant co-op placements and graduate with their master’s degree.
Before students commit to a school, they should work with a faculty advisor to get an accurate picture of how long the degree will take, considering factors like existing credits, co-ops and study abroad.
9. What does it cost?
THE ADVERTISED STICKER PRICE of a school— and sometimes the eye-popping number of a scholarship or loan offer—may not give an accurate picture of affordability. A student’s actual overall cost is the total of tuition, room, board, books, fees, travel and living expenses for the years attended, minus nonrepayables like scholarships, work-study income and grants.
Students and their families shouldn’t hesitate to look at a private school, Midway’s Dudgeon says— its bottom line may be competitive with a less expensive school but the program may be more distinctive. Even if a student can receive loans for more than the overall cost (some companies encourage unnecessary excessive loans to cover living expenses), this money isn’t free, and the aim should be to shoulder as little debt as possible.
Every school in Kentucky, both public and private, offers scholarships, work-study and other opportunities to help defray costs.
Check out programs like WKU’s Hilltopper Guarantee (covers 100% of tuition for Pell Grant recipients who have at least a 3.0 grade point average), border state reciprocity and automatic awards for a high grade point average or ACT scores.
Parents should be sure their child is vigilant about staying ahead of deadlines for competitive scholarships that require essays and recommendation letters. Local organizations often offer small scholarships for which seniors can apply. And perhaps the best way to start paying for a degree is Kentucky’s Work Ready Scholarship, which opens doors to students all over the state to achieve associate degrees tuition-free.
Another way to look at this question is: How much debt is a degree from this school worth? It may be smarter for students to net a specialized undergraduate degree from a more expensive school known for its track record in their high-paying, high demand field than to get a general degree from a less expensive school, followed by the expense of two years of a graduate program.
10. What career is a child suited for and drawn to?
UNCERTAINTY ABOUT A LIFE DIRECTION is common for most teenagers. MSU’s Edminster gives this advice: “Parents should initiate the discussion about careers and continue it over several years, so students focus on a final career goal rather than simply seeing college as the next step after high school.”
If their family is investing in higher education, it’s reasonable to ask students how they want to invest their life—what group of people or area of industry would they like to serve?
Parents should affirm their child’s academic and character strengths, paying attention to interests and talents. The goal is to guide students to consider their college experience as being about more than their own preferences—it is about preparing to change the world.