Street sign for College Ave
College Planning

Research a College Without a Visit

Many students can’t visit all the colleges they want to know more about. Cost, schedule conflicts, and covid campus closures might make the dream of a college tour road trip too hard to make a reality. On the other hand, its essential that students learn about a wide array of colleges. There are many great colleges across the US and most high school students only have a shallow basis for knowing about them. So how can you research a college without a college tour?

Databases for College Research

Some of the most important information about colleges is also the easiest to find, if you know where to look. Admissions statistics, graduation rates, annual costs, and even how many students complete each degree program is available in either the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data submitted to the Department of Education or the Common Data Set (which is usually available on individual college websites). These two data sets are the backbone of most college search engines.

College Navigator Has Data Reported to the Government

College Navigator is one of the first places I go to research a college. This site uses IPEDS data and is an easy source of data on admissions rate, graduation rate, and how large specific degree programs are. The Net Price section is useful for private colleges, because it gives a sense of the actual Net Cost of Attendance at different family income levels. WARNING: For public colleges the Net Price info listed is only for students paying in state tuition. If you apply from out of state, you may pay a much higher tuition rate. College Scorecard takes the same IPEDS data and pairs it with information on post-graduation income and loan debt for specific fields of study. If you are unsure of your intended field of study, this may help visualize possible return on investment for different programs.

Common Data Set Has More Details

A college’s Common Data Set has two sections I find particularly helpful for college research. Section C includes information about admissions for first-time freshmen, including what factors are Very Important, Important, Considered, and Not Considered. For example, Washington State University has a 2020-21 CDS that lists GPA and Rigor of Secondary School Record as Very Important, but Standardized Test Scores, Interviews, and Level of Applicant’s Interest are Not Considered. This means Washington State University does not track if a student toured campus, attended online info sessions, or met with an admissions rep.

CDS Section C is also where you can find test score and GPA distributions for enrolled freshmen as well as some data on Early Decision and admissions waitlists. Because Common Data Set reports are stashed in different places on college websites, I usually search for [Name of College] Common Data Set and look for the most recent report.

Research the College on a Virtual Visit

Before 2020, some colleges had experimented with online “virtual tours.” These were usually photos of the main buildings on campus, with a recorded presentation by a peppy student. But for college research, they leave me a little cold. They often feel like an architectural tour, but it can be hard to feel like you know the school well and the tours tend to blur together.

As a result of Covid, most colleges created virtual information sessions and ways for prospective students to connect without coming to campus. Fortunately, many schools have kept these virtual options available. I try to look for virtual information sessions from admissions staff, live tours with a student guide where they respond to questions, one on one meetings with students or advisors, and virtual college presentations. Many college fairs have gone online, but I’ve heard a lot of college reps say that attendance is lower than normal. This means if you pop into a session during a college fair, you might be able to chat one on one with the admissions rep for your area.

Research the College Using Its Website

College websites are a goldmine for college research, if you have patience and a willingness to dig around. College websites can be a little confusing, since they usually serve many different interests and were built over many years. But as a general rule, you’ll find tabs for Admissions, Academics, and Student Life (or similar wording).

Admissions usually describes the process and timeline for applying to the college, with different pages for Undergraduate First Time Freshmen and Transfers as well as Graduate applicants. Links to financial aid and scholarship info might be in this section too.

Academics is where you’ll find descriptions of majors and minors, as well as college wide degree requirements. You should also look for links to individual colleges, schools, or departments that are smaller administrative organizations within the college or university. For example, Washington State University has 11 separate colleges, including the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, which in turn has 8 different schools and departments for different disciplines (including some at satellite campuses).

More on Researching College Majors

If you were looking for news about engineering wide support like the Living Learning Community or student clubs that would be in the College of Engineering pages. If you want to compare 4 year course plans for Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, that would be in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering section. These pages will give you a different perspective of life as an engineering student than if you were to just read the WSU catalog descriptions for Mechanical Engineering.

Obviously, students do more than just go to classes, and social life on campus can be a big factor in choosing where to attend. Tabs for Student Life or similar terms usually have information on housing, clubs, recreation, student dining, and support programs.

Be Creative in your College Research

This is related to the suggestion to dig into the pages for specific programs and departments. Look for videos or podcasts that feature departments, majors, and clubs you care about. Sometimes you’ll get a different sense of what programs or the school than what the admissions marketing department produces. This video explains a research project by Washington State University engineering students that explores how to remove space dust from areas like air locks (don’t miss the astronaut doll in kevlar “space suit” as a test object). And sometimes you’ll find videos with behind the scenes views of campus. For example, I found this video showcasing the Washington State University Engineering Shops. Note that neither of these videos were from the main Washington State University YouTube channel.

Good Outside Sources for College Research

College guide books have been around for a long time now. Think of these as the movie review of the college world. They usually give the highlights of what a college is known for, written either by a campus research team or individual students. A few I like include the Fiske Guide to Colleges (updated annually), Insider’s Guide to Colleges (each entry is written by 1-2 students at the school), and Colleges That Change Lives (in depth descriptions, but could use a refresh).

There are now a lot of outside review sites that try to crowdsource information about colleges. Because these are often written by anonymous students, you don’t really know what their experience or motivation is. Read these with an eye towards trends that are mentioned by many reviews, so you don’t get sucked into one person’s drama. A couple that may be worth your time include Unigo and Campus Reel.

All, College Admissions, Covid-19

Virtual College Tours and Admissions Briefs

Because many colleges have sent students home and gone to online classes and work from home operations due to Covid-19, many students are not able to make their planned college visits. Fortunately, there are still lots of ways to learn about a school. A number of colleges are offering online admissions briefs and virtual tours. These won’t answer all of your questions, but then neither would an in-person visit.  Hopefully what they will give you is a better sense of a school and if it’s one to explore further.  Then you can spend time on the college website and social media feeds to find out more details.

In addition to the new admissions sessions I’m listing below, a significant number of colleges also have virtual tours of campus available on YouVisit  If you know of other online admissions events, please share them with me.

Virtual College Admissions Sessions (pre-registration may be required)

Boston University (virtual financial aid session and virtual campus tour)

Carnegie Mellon University

Drexel University

Furman University

Oberlin College

St. Joseph’s University

Tulane University

United State Naval Academy (Annapolis) Virtual Admissions Brief

University of Mississippi (Old Miss) [Hat tip: Lecel B.]

University of Richmond

University of Rochester

University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts

All, College Planning

Cranberry, Turkey, and College Tours

The first college tour I took my kids on was a target of opportunity visit to West Virginia University several years ago.  It was the week of Thanksgiving and I picked WVU because we drove past it on our way to Grandma’s house.

Even though it was an impromptu visit, it was a wonderful first step towards thinking about college.  The guides were enthusiastic and shared the interesting experiences they’d had as students. The kids had their first significant exposure to the details of college life and realized that it wasn’t just like high school.  They also could see that some of the attractive “college experience” amenities were available at a wide range of schools – not just the most expensive. 

It was also evident that my fears that they wouldn’t get in anywhere at all were unfounded.  There is a range of admissions competitiveness, and a good education can be earned at a wider range of colleges than just what are found at the top of popularity rankings.  I was especially impressed by the steps they took to integrate new students into the college community.  They recognize that for some, attending college at all is a big jump and the campus may be a larger social setting than is familiar. 

WVU wasn’t a final fit for my kids, but the visit was a key step in helping them (and me) understand the transition from high school to college.  This type of initial college tour is something I suggest, especially for families of freshmen and sophomores who are still figuring out what they want after graduation.

With that in mind, take a look at your travel plans over the next few months.  Do you go past some interesting schools?  Is there a school in town that you’ve never formally toured?  Is there a college across town from family that would be holding tours while you’re there?  Most schools have an online registration for scheduling campus tours. Check ahead of time to make sure one is available.  If you can’t take an official campus tour, some college have maps for self-guided tours.

If you’re drawing a blank on possible schools to visit, IPEDS has a map of colleges in the US.  I recommend checking “Public” and “Private Non Profit” and then selecting “Bachelors” in Degree and “4 Year” for School Level.  I wouldn’t worry about matching for major as this type of college visit is more about setting and campus feel than academic matching.  After your tour, take some time to sit and talk about what you noticed.  What seemed really cool and what was off putting.  What questions do you still have and what does that suggest for future tours?

[NB: This map works best in browsers that support Google Maps, such as Chrome.]