By Anna Swenson
Even if you’ve read twenty brochures and ten college guidebooks about a school you’re considering, it can be tough to determine what life at that university is really like. Until your futon is moved into your freshman dorm, how can you really know what the campus community values are? By researching who makes the decisions for the university and who’s paying attention to those decisions, you can get a sense of whether it’s a campus community that’s right for you. Below are three questions that offer a way to get a glimpse at aspects of a college that you probably wouldn’t consider asking before attending your first class. Instead of basing your college decisions on a favorable ratio of girls to date, a reputation for wild social lives, or a shiny new gym, consider the following factors:
1. Who runs the college or university? For most colleges in the United States, a state-appointed board of regents or chancellors makes decisions regarding how much tuition students will pay and how many students a university will seek to enroll. Appointed by the respective state legislature, the board of regents also makes the decisions regarding what programs within each university will be prioritized with funding and new facilities.
It may seem abstract to worry about what’s happening in upper leadership while you’re reading about who has sushi in the dining halls, but the decisions and priorities of the state in which you’re enrolled will affect your every day life as a student. These boards approve not only who will be your basketball coach, but also how much tuition will increase each year. Check local newspapers in the area of the school for reports on the governance body that oversees the school you’re considering.
Public universities and community colleges are directly directed and governed by their state board of regents. Private school, especially those with religious affiliation, remain mostly autonomous from the state board, but are still supported by the state in the form of grants, tax breaks, and loan sponsorship. A potential student at any level of college will benefit from researching the funding and education priorities of the state in which he or she plans to enroll.
2. Who is paying attention at the college? You might pick up a copy of the student newspaper on your campus visit and think that’s the only news coverage around. You’ll almost always be wrong: In addition to traditional media outlets like news channels, radio stations, and print publications, campuses large and small have extensive networks of blogs, podcasts, and independent journals.
Flipping past the front page of a campus daily will give you an inimitable snapshot of campus life from the people who already inhabit it. Is there more space devoted to the latest scientific discoveries of faculty, or is the arts section more prominent? What is the tone and take of the day’s staff editorial? Are the student staffers more interested in tonight’s game, or a movement to bring vegan options to the dining halls?
In addition to traditional media, most campuses have at least a few blogs run by students, faculty, and alumni on everything from sports to the future of the college. Onward State at Penn State University and the Oregon Commentator at the University if Oregon are both independent publications that provide original reporting on campus events and concerns in up-to-the-minute blogs. The vibrant sports-blogging community at schools like The University of Michigan portrays how invested graduates remain and how excited they are about the legacy of their school.
3. How important is the voice of students? No matter where you enroll, student governments are your voice on things that matter. The issues considered by student senates include how much tuition you pay, what courses are available, and whether the school builds a new gym. The statement of the recognized student organization functions for leadership of the school and of the state as the official opinion of all the students, whether you’re engaged with the body or not.
There are many kinds of student governments: Some have ten members and meet weekly, some have hundreds of members and meet only a few times per semester. Researching what kind of structure is used at your dream school offers a glimpse of how representative the body is, and how likely it is that your opinion will be influential. For example, The University of Washington has about one student representative to every 570 students, while the University of California-Los Angeles only has one senator per every 2,600 undergraduates.
In addition to serving as the official statement to administrators and legislators on behalf of students, student governments also determine how much say you have in policy changes that affect you. Some colleges enact expensive new fees without letting students vote on the topic, while others put new policy to a direct referendum. Whether your voice is important to the leadership of a college could be a compelling indication of how much they care about the opinions of the students they enroll.
(Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles)