Twenty-Five Questions to Ask and Things to Do Before Picking a College

Twenty-Five Questions to Ask and Things to Do Before Picking a College January 18, 2017

photo-1461783436728-0a9217714694_optI have spent over thirty years in higher education, mostly in Christian higher education. I have known saintly presidents like the late Clyde Cook of Biola University, passionate Christians like Professor JP Moreland, and highly skilled Deans like HBU’s Doris Warren. For seventeen years, my joy was to work with the faculty at the Torrey Honors Institute. I get to work with a dynamic President like King’s College Greg Thornbury and the brilliant Dr. Stacey here at The Saint Constantine School. I have mostly had it great.

Christian education is worth the price . . . except when it isn’t. Sadly, just like anything in life where there is money and some power, there are grifters, bad players, and rip off artists in higher education. Some schools make a living by paying most of the people who will teach your adult children less than a living wage. Some are empire building. A few advertise as Christian and then spend four years undermining the student’s faith.

How can you know?

Here are twenty things to do . . . or to ask . . . that might help you make a good college decision. Most of these things apply to secular schools as well.


What is the average discount rate on student tuition? 

Schools often have a high sticker price, but do not budget for getting that price. They know what the average financial aid amount is. They “discount” tuition to get the student body they want. That means (in some places) scholarships are just jury-rigged in the process to get a target student body.

Make sure you are not one of the cash cows paying for other people’s discount.


How much of my financial aid package is based on discounted tuition? Exactly how much (total) does this mean I will owe at the end of four years? What is the payment going to be? Are there fees? Does non-loan financial aid apply to fees?

Twenty-thousand dollars a year of debt does not sound like much . . . especially in ten thousand dollar chunks, but it adds up. Do you wish to owe eighty thousand dollars over thirty years? Many students do. Imagine being 52 and making that final hundreds-of-dollars a month payment.

I have known students get “full rides” to schools for tuition that got hit with fees that amounted to nearly as much as a local state school tuition. They ended up borrowing money for the fees! Don’t be that student.


Don’t sign anything without getting your lawyer to look over the documents and explaining to you what they mean. 

Why make a tens of thousands of dollars commitment without paying a few hundred to see a lawyer? Get a family attorney or friend in your church to review your aid package. You might be surprised at what you would find. For example, he or she might find that the documents are very badly written. That is a bad sign for your school.

Find out if aid levels are for four years and under what conditions you could lose that aid level. Get this in writing. 

What happens if they close your major? Discount anything told to you that is not written down. 


What percentage of freshman classes are taught by part-time (adjunct) professors? Sophomore? 

Beware the school that ignores freshmen and sophomores by pawning off part-time people on them. There are many good part-time professors, but too many of them is a very bad sign for quality. What is too many? If you have five classes for the term, one part-time is good. Anything more is getting dodgy.

Is there a general education or core program? Is it mostly taught by full time professors?

Avoid a school that requires units outside your major, but pretends you should know what courses you need. Choose a school that hires specialists in general education. Avoid schools that put their stars in front of the majors and let the rest of the student body go.

Ask professors questions about job satisfaction in private. 

The professors that are put in front of you are making the pitch. Make an appointment with a different professor in your area of study and ask if they would send (or did send) their kids to this school. Ask why or why not. Ask if they are happy.

Check where professors earned terminal degrees. 

Where did they go to school? Avoid two types of schools: places where everyone went to that school or one or two closely related schools or schools that have senior faculty with dodgy degrees.

How do you know? Google the school where they earned that MFA, EdD or DMin or PhD. Ask: do I hope to go there?

Google the papers and books written by a professor in your kid’s major. Read one.


Check for the turnover rate for senior administration.

Avoid a school with new vice-presidents every year or other year. Avoid a school with no new vice-presidents in a decade.

Ask if more people work in the academic area (Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs) or in administration. Get specific numbers.

Do professors run things or people you will never see and who do not teach? God help you if you end up in a college where senior administrators are hostile to their own professors! It is uncommon, but it happens.

Do teachers have tenure? If so, then who measures continued teaching and scholarship? What happens if both go “bad?” If not, then who hires and fires? How much turnover is there?

The good side of tenure is that people cannot be fired based on whims. The bad side is that laziness and low quality classes can develop. Find out.

A school with many “older” faculty (50 years old plus) and “junior” faculty (late 20’s and early 30’s) is a bad sign. That means people who could leave did. Big turnover in your department should scare you off.

Google four or five senior administrators including the President and read the first three pages of links.

Find the senior leadership that nobody mentions on tours and read up on them. They are making the decisions often.

Ask the campus policy on ghost writing.

Do faculty or senior administrators “write” books using a ghost writer? What happens if they use one? How do they handle “help” or “research?”

Student Life-Chaplain

Is there a chaplain? Read the chaplain’s qualifications. Do you want this person as your pastor? 


Is the student to chaplin ratio reasonable?

A school that has one paid chaplain for thousands of students does not have a chaplain.

Has the school ever had a senior chaplain of color?

This is the best sign I know for racism on campus.

Is there paid support for a student to receive pastoral care? For example, how does the school help a student with an eating disorder? Ask for explicit steps in writing.

For students in my admissions profile, what is the five or six year graduation rate?

They don’t love you if the number is low (under forty percent) and they don’t spend money (resources) giving you support. Don’t be fooled by offices of student support . . . ask how many people are in your cohort and how many full-time employees are supporting your group.

A few schools will admit people that are probably not going to make it on the grounds they are giving the student a chance. They make a token effort at support and go on year after year with low grad rates.

This is very bad. Don’t be that student.

Christian Commitment or Friendly to Christians

Write down what you want the spiritual climate of a school to be. Do this even if going to a secular school.

Some secular schools are Christian friendly, some friendly to some types of Christians, some generally hostile. The same thing is true of Christian colleges. Some don’t like Reformed students, some love them. Some are left-of-center and some are right of center. Some are nuts. Write down your non-negotiables and then use them to form your actions.

Ask how often faculty reaffirm any statement of faith that the school has. Ask what the process for educating non-theological faculty is in Christian worldview. Ask the most recent change in that statement.

This will tell you where the school is heading, what stirs up the faculty.

Ask a counter-your-position-that-matters question of professors. For example, if you think your Christian college should be pro-life, ask this: “If my student happens to be pro-choice, will she be welcome here?” If you are Catholic, ask: “If my student thinks Catholics are not Christian, will her views be heard?”

Note: if the college is just “selling you” and the Christian commitment is weak, they will back down fast.
“Well, we are officially x, but nobody really cares.” If you cared, that means you made a mistake.

Ask if any faculty has taken or would take your child to Planned Parenthood. What would happen if a faculty member did do so?

Take the statement of faith down to professors in your major and ask them to explain what something in it means.

If they cannot, how are they doing integration? Even in their own lives?

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