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Originally published October 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2007 at 10:53 AM


Making that decision — together

Seattle Times staff reporter

Rosie Martinez and her mother are both happy about Rosie's decision to begin Seattle Pacific University this fall. But they came to the same conclusion from different perspectives:

"I wanted to go to a smaller, private, Christian college that was semi-close to home," says Rosie, a Spokane resident who hopes to become a doctor one day.

Jan Martinez, who hadn't even heard of SPU before her daughter applied, was swayed by SPU's pre-med track record: "100 percent of their applicants were accepted to medical school last year."

Across the Cascades, Deanna Ohlfs and her parents had a tougher time agreeing on a college for the Kent student. Their tussle was mainly over money:

Deanna wanted to attend Franklin College, a tiny liberal-arts school in Switzerland, for its strong program in international relations.

But her parents balked at the additional debt she'd take on by going to an expensive private school and having to fly halfway across the world.

These days, picking a college is typically a joint venture between parents and kids — often a months-long undertaking requiring scores of conversations, and sometimes fights, about applications, school visits, and, of course, the final decision.

Today's über-engaged parents (at the extreme end dubbed helicopter parents, because they hover over their children's every move) are highly involved in the selection process. Many colleges, in turn, are responding with special programs for them:

Seattle University, for instance, last year launched two-day parent orientations, and recently renamed its "New Student Programs Office" the "New Student and Family Programs Office."

In parents' defense, there's a lot at stake: four years of formative experiences that can cost, according to the College Board, an average of $24,740 at a public institution and $94,848 at a private one — and that's for tuition and fees alone. Add room and board and those costs are $54,589 and $129,228 — though the majority of students do get some financial aid. (See related story: The price of higher ed climbed more than 6 percent this year. Both generations have legitimate interests in the school choice:

Moms and dads are concerned about getting the best value for their money, and whether their kids will learn the skills required by today's competitive workplaces.

Their kids, for their part, may also consider academics, along with location (many are eager to get as far away as possible, while their folks tend to want them to stay close). But teens are also checking out the campus social scene: How do they party? Are there clubs or organizations they'd want to join? How competitive are the football and basketball teams?


While parents may find some of that superficial, students do have good reason to care about things like whether kids are dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch or vintage, or whether fraternities and sororities are at the center of campus life or on the fringe. The experts say students who feel like they "fit in" not only feel more comfortable but also do better in school. Most parents and kids do eventually find a college that meets both their standards, even if they must make compromises.

Which is what happened with Deanna Ohlfs' family. After long talks and some tears, Deanna enrolled this fall at the University of British Columbia — a school outside the U.S., as Deanna wished, but at a cost of about US$30,400 for tuition, room and board, versus $40,000 at Franklin.

While their arguing took its toll, "I guess now looking back at it, it was nice to have their opinion because I do value my parents' opinion highly, whether they know it or not," Deanna says.

"They actually cared where I ended up and they wanted to make sure that I would be at a place where I would be happy and not bored or, worse, [burdened by] paying off loans."

What to find out

So how can both parents and students get the answers they need to find a quality education?

Here's a starting list of questions for prospective colleges (more lifestyle questions for students only:

The basics

Graduation rate: How many first-year students graduate in four years?

Majors: If a student's career path is clear, a school should offer the relevant major in a strong department. The most popular majors at a school tend to be the best, advises Robyn Campbell of Colleology, a Seattle-based private college counseling company. But most students tend to switch majors a lot. For the unsure, choose a school with broad offerings so they can explore possibilities and won't have to transfer when they settle on their choice.

Who's teaching undergraduates? How many are tenured professors, lecturers, graduate students?

Class size: Studies have shown that students learn best from a mixture of small and large classes, according to Malcolm Getz, author of "Investing in College: A Guide for the Perplexed." For instance, a student would benefit more from taking a lecture class taught by a star professor along with three small classes, rather than four medium-size classes of 20 students each.

Laying the groundwork for years of success

Requirements: Does a school have a bevy of requirements or only a few? Some students benefit, while others chafe at structured programs: For example, a hard-core-science type might go nuts when faced with a full year of English composition (even if it's good for 'em).

First-year bonding: Are there, say, all-frosh dorms or other structured ways the school promotes shared social and academic experiences?

Research: What opportunities are there for students to do research with faculty?

First-year clustering: Is there a program with classes that group entering students together to ensure they have access to tenured faculty members? Are there all-frosh dorms for newbies to cultivate a shared experience?

Support services: What kinds of tutoring and other support programs does the school offer?

Career help: Is there a career center, and how does the school help students obtain internships, jobs and study-abroad opportunities?

The caveats

Consider ranking systems carefully: Top-ranked academic departments or professional programs and professors may boost a school's reputation but may primarily serve grad students, with undergraduates having little or no contact with them.

Price and the "big name" don't necessarily reflect quality: Much of a school's funds could be going to graduate education, even at state schools.

It's true that a prestigious undergraduate school can mean faculty with connections to grad schools and professional programs, plus high-quality peers. But if students want to eventually work in their home state after college, going to a state school can help them make contacts with alumni and professors who may aid their job hunt when they graduate.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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