For three years as an undergraduate, I worked as a campus tour guide for prospective students interested in attending my college. It was one of my favorite jobs during my college career because it gave me a chance to show off what I loved about my school and field questions about the school itself and the college experience in general.
However, it often seemed as if prospective college students and their parents didn’t know what questions to ask. They would ask about what they could expect from financial aid or the possibility of landing a job post-graduation — but they often missed out on truly understanding how the school would fit with their college and career plans because they didn’t think to ask follow-up questions.
When you go on a campus visit, make sure you follow up on the typical questions with further ones that really dig deep into what costs, value, and experiences you can expect from any particular school.
The typical question: What is the employment rate post-graduation?
This common question is certainly a reasonable metric. You want to know if the school and its programs prepare a student for the working world after college. But this question assumes that everyone is going to school just to get a job.
What if you are interested in majoring in music, or philosophy, or fine arts, or history, or — horror of horrors — English? Asking about the employment rate post-graduation for these sorts of programs is never going to sound as promising as the rates for nursing, engineering, and accounting programs.
The follow up: What is the student loan default rate?
The answer to this question can be far more illuminating than the employment rate question, because it can help you to see if the school is truly preparing you for a life of economic security. For instance, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) boasts an incredibly low 2.2 percent default rate for undergraduates — whereas the national average default rate for student loan borrowers is 11.3 percent.
There’s a good reason why MICA brags about this rate. It tells prospective students that though they will be studying fine arts — which is a major that’s not known for its high employment rates — they will learn plenty of applicable skills that will help them to land a job, even if it’s in a different field.
Many liberal arts schools like to say that they are teaching their students how to think critically, research, and write, which will be useful in any field post-graduation. Asking about the default rate can give you a better sense of whether or not the school in question really follows through on those promises. (See also: What Really Happens When You Don’t Pay Your Student Loans)
The typical question: How many students receive financial aid?
Prospective students want to know that there may be aid available to them if they choose a particular school. Many schools will tout just how large a percentage of students receive financial aid, which can help to alleviate fears that a particular school might be economically out of reach.
But not all financial aid is created equal, and knowing that 70 percent of students at a particular school receive aid does not tell you everything you need to know.
The follow up: What is the ratio of outright aid to loans?
When you ask how many students receive financial aid, the school representative will tell you a number that includes any students who are taking loans from the school. What students and parents really need to know is how much financial aid is made up of scholarships and grants as compared to loans.
If the ratio is tilted toward loans over outright aid, that can help you make a better financial comparison of the costs of different schools. The answer to this question can also help you to know which schools are truly committed to (and put money behind) the idea of helping students afford their education. (See also: How to Pay for College When You Didn’t Get a Scholarship)
The typical question: What is the average student loan debt of graduating students?
After hearing all of the horror stories of graduates with six-figure student loans, it’s natural that prospective students would want to learn the average debt load of graduates from each school. This figure can help you to determine if the school appears to be within your financial reach. However, it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
The follow up: What kinds of financial literacy support are available to alumni?
Some schools have an unofficial, “Here’s your diploma, now get outta here” vibe when it comes to helping their young alumni get on their feet. At these schools, all you can really expect in terms of financial literacy support is the federally-mandated student loan exit interview.
However, many schools offer a great deal of support for recent graduates — particularly schools that know they are a little more expensive and do not have the endowment necessary to offer more outright aid.
If the school you have your heart set on has a high average student loan debt amount, it is possible that the alumni office works extra hard to help new grads learn how to navigate their finances. Even if the school does not have a high average debt burden, it’s worth asking about what kinds of financial literacy support a graduate can expect from the alumni office. It’s important to remember that your relationship with the school does not end when you walk across the stage. (See also: The Financial Basics Every New Grad Should Know)
The typical question: Do I make too much to receive financial aid?
A common concern among families is the possibility that their income will disqualify their prospective student from need-based financial aid. It’s a reasonable concern, and asking this question can help you to better understand the income requirements for financial aid eligibility — since income is the largest factor in receiving financial aid. However, income is not the only consideration for financial aid eligibility, and just asking this question might not give you all the answers you need.
The follow up: What other factors do you consider for financial aid eligibility?
It’s important to remember that schools also consider a number of other factors, in addition to income, when determining who is eligible for need-based financial aid. These factors can include family size, whether or not other members of the family are also in school, number of assets, and even the parents’ ages. Asking this question can help you figure out if there may be some financial aid available, even if your family income is relatively high. (See also: 12 Surprising Ways to Get More College Financial Aid)