Questions to Ask Before Enrolling at a College

I found this great post about the questions one needs to ask before enrolling at a college. Some of them are really great while some made little sense to me.

Here are the questions I consider to be extremely important. People who fail to ask them before deciding on a college are irresponsible and unintelligent. I’ve seen folks who shelled out $250,000 for their kid to go to college without even realizing how highly probable it was that their child would never take a class with anybody who actually had a PhD. Be vigilant, people, and ask these crucial questions:

  • What percentage of courses in the college (and in my discipline) are part-time?  Are they paid reasonably?  If I’m in a field that tends to traditionally employ a large number of part time professors (like art and music), what’s the turnover rate?  Will I get to study with whom I came here to study?
  • How many of my part-time professors will also teach the exact same course in the community college on the other side of town?
  • What’s the college’s opinion on MOOCs?
  • Do you have a women’s center and is it supported by the college community?  Where is it?  Can you take us in there on the tour?  What formal support is there for LGBT students?
  • When was the last time a professor walked off the job mid-semester?
  • Do professors have to sign a statement of doctrine or church affiliation?
  • If the college is religiously affiliated, how does one reconcile bigoted positions on race and sexuality in the classroom?  In student life?  In use of the campus chapel?
  • Can the religious life/chaplain’s office give me a few references of students who self-identify in a similar way to me, to ask questions?
  • When was the last time the campus was investigated by the AAUP?
  • How often do students not graduate on time because of lack of enrollment for upper-level courses?
  • Do full time professors or part time professors service the general education courses?  How many TAs will I have to be working with?
  • What percentage of non-science students are education majors?  What percent of the faculty council are education professors?  
  • Who was the last great speaker to come to campus for something?  Did students actually attend?
  • How do professors’ salaries measure up against athletic staff salaries?  

Now for the questions I consider to be both useless and offensive. It is crucial to know the relevant information before paying the tuition fees. However, let’s remember that occupying the position of a customer who is always right with college professors is a very counter-productive strategy.

  • Explain what happened the last three times an upset student complained to the department chair about a professor.

The internal workings of any department are none of your business. You need to be able to trust that these routine issues are handled in an appropriate manner. What I hear in this question is the voice of a helicoptering Daddy worried that bad, mean ogres will be nasty to his little baby. Grow up, Daddy, and let little Johnny learn to work within a hierarchy. That is a highly marketable skill.

  • Do the professors actually live in the community?

What else do you need to know? Their favorite sexual position? It is none of your goddamn business where anybody lives or what they eat for breakfast. The idea that paying tuition entitles you to police people’s private lives is highly offensive.

  • Take a look around the student parking lots during the semester and take a look around the faculty parking lots.  Which has more Lexuses and BMW’s?

I find the question and the mindset that inspired it to be incredibly vulgar. But I guess you need to go to college before you understand why such questions should not be asked.

  • Is the library easy to use?  Are the librarians easy to work with?  Do your classes actually require you to walk into the library?

Also, how many of the profs actually require you to use type-writers? Come on, folks, dictating course requirements to professionals who design the courses is right there with inquiring into those professionals’ sex lives. What do you think your little Susie will be able to learn from somebody you teach her to see as less competent than her unqualified Mommy to design her own courses?

  • May I sit in a writing composition course to observe?

No professor in their right mind will let you mess with the group dynamic in her course just to give you a chance to sit there and feel important. Do you also sit in on a chef preparing a meal, a doctor performing a procedure, a lawyer negotiating a settlement, a dress-maker sewing a dress, a dentist drilling a tooth before you choose to grace them with your custom?

Overall, this list is very helpful but I find it curious how easily it slips from the “university should be a place of learning, not a place of making a quick buck” into the “professors should be my humble slaves because I have paid them” model.

P.S. I looked at the discussion following the linked post and discovered, to my intense disappointment, that it very soon became about the incredible hardship of asking questions because being an adult is intensely complicated. As a result of this approach, people end up getting into enormous debt in exchange for a piece of toilet paper sold them by some diploma mill. And all because they couldn’t get themselves together and ask a few questions.

37 thoughts on “Questions to Ask Before Enrolling at a College

  1. Interesting post. I agree that students should ask more questions before making an important decision like this. I would also encourage students to do more research on their own. Administrators, who generally lead these tours, can be slick and use obfuscating language. But most of this information is publically available. For instance, an incredible amount of information can be found on the class schedule (class size, instructor, etc etc) and class schedules can be found on most school websites. Also, records of any AAUP investigations are public and can be found with just a little searching. Students and parents tend to know the “reputation” and “ranking” of the school and that’s about it. A little more searching can turn up a wealth of information–probably more information that can be turned up by asking questions at the campus visit.

    And I completely agree. It is extremely offensive to ask what happened “the last three times a student complained about a professor.” The vast majority of the time students are making fallacious and petty complaints (wanting a higher grade, upset because a text had “sexual content” etc. etc.) To some extent, it’s the mark of a good department when these complaints are dismissed. It is perhaps even more offensive to ask where professors live. I have a whole speech about why this is so offensive. But you summed it up: none of your business. 😉

    As a side note, I don’t care when prospective students observe my classes. I thought this was pretty standard practice. And they generally just sit in a corner quietly. I sat in on a class when I was selecting my PhD program and found it helpful. You wouldn’t allow a prospective student to observe a class if they asked beforehand?

    Like

    1. At one of my universities, it was standard practice to let the parents of prospective students sit in on classes. That was a disaster. The parents behaved like the epitome of a nightmare student. They acted very bored (obviously they would be bored in a course they knew nothing about), sighed loudly, some interrupted (!), some loudly discussed the professor in the third person (“Did you hear what she just said? I wish she spoke more clearly”), a few tried managing the classroom, and a couple loudly expressed their opinions about the course’s shortcomings in the end.

      At another university, there was a practice of bringing groups of high school students to sit in on classes. And immediately the college students would turn into giggly obnoxious high-schoolers.

      A single prospective student coming in to class every once in a while isn’t a big deal. But what I fear is that the moment this becomes a standard practice, it will get out of hand and we will be told by the administration that we have to accommodate a certain number of prospectives in our classes on a regular basis.

      Like

      1. “it was standard practice to let the parents of prospective students sit in on classes.”
        Parents??? Of prospective college students? Yes. I can see how that would be a disaster. Shudder.

        Like

          1. The same parents who would later call and threaten to sue because “I didn’t send my son to your school for him to get Bs.”

            And then there was this mother who once dragged her huge footballer player of a son into my office and loudly demanded to know why he was getting a C in Spanish. This was actually a good bonding moment for me and the student because we were both completely humiliated and terrified.

            Like

      2. -The same parents who would later call and threaten to sue because “I didn’t send my son to your school for him to get Bs.”

        I wonder if they also threaten to sue their kids’ personal trainers for refusing to say that the kids are olympic athletes.

        Like

      1. At 17, I chose my cegep and I’ve done myself the administrative procedure, the visiting and the questioning without my parents. But of course, I receive many advices by my mother mainly. I support parents’ advices, this is not my point.

        Now, I know more why your students ask you so many stupid questions.

        Like

        1. It’s great that you were so mature. I want to be honest and admit that I was not nearly like that. All I cared about at that age were boys and clothes. It’s the truth, what can I say? 🙂

          Like

  2. “how does one reconcile bigoted positions on race and sexuality in the classroom? ”

    If a student asks this question, I think ey should not use the word “bigoted” even if this is really the case.

    Like

  3. “How many of my part-time professors will also teach the exact same course in the community college on the other side of town?”

    I would not use “the exact same course” if I ask this question.

    “How often do students not graduate on time because of lack of enrollment for upper-level courses?”

    I’ve never heard about a problem like that in Québec. This is utter stupidity.

    “Is the library easy to use? Are the librarians easy to work with? Do your classes actually require you to walk into the library?”

    I think the first question “Is the library easy to use?” is a good question but not the others.

    Like

    1. We had that problem for students who elected to study something like say… romance languages, and then chose Portuguese as one of their languages. They were required to take certain upper-level classes in their chosen language, but there were so few students studying the language that the course times and topics were very limited. I think it is good to be aware of these limitations if you know what you want to study at college. Of course, most college freshman would not know what they would like to study in enough detail to really foresee these limitations.

      Like

  4. “What percentage of non-science students are education majors? What percent of the faculty council are education professors? ”

    Interesting, but we could use some variants with other domains than education to illustrate the lack of variety.

    Like

  5. My parents would not have known to ask any of those questions. My father did his undergraduate in another country, as my mother. The concept of choosing the school was beyond them. You tested well, you went to the state school on scholarship. My mother’s parents had some money so they sent her to the parochial college across the street (on reputation). Neither my guidance counselor nor any of the materials I was directed toward (this was before the Internet was a thing) had any of these types of questions.

    Any decent campus tour will address the library. I’ve been on campuses with decent libraries and poor libraries and it does make a difference, especially with upper level courses. (Although to ask if you’ll be required to use the library at any point in time is ridiculous.)

    The car question is a dumb proxy for “how much do you pay your professors” and “how rich is the student body?”

    Like

    1. “Any decent campus tour will address the library. I’ve been on campuses with decent libraries and poor libraries and it does make a difference, especially with upper level courses. (Although to ask if you’ll be required to use the library at any point in time is ridiculous.)”

      – The way things work these days is that I use the library every single day for my research but I hardly ever visit it physically. I only need to visit it physically if the librarians are not working as well as they should. Our librarians are very professional, so I don’t need to go. The number of actual visits to the library is not really indicative of anything.

      “The car question is a dumb proxy for “how much do you pay your professors” and “how rich is the student body?”

      – I’d just much rather this was asked directly.

      Like

  6. This car issue is beyond ridiculous. What if professors are paid well, but just do not have owning a BMW among their priorities? I’d rather count electric and hybrid cars, as well as Subarus… 🙂

    Like

    1. “This car issue is beyond ridiculous. What if professors are paid well, but just do not have owning a BMW among their priorities?”

      – Exactly! My thesis adviser made about $250,000 per year yet had no car at all and never learned how to drive. My other professor made even more and didn’t have a car neither.

      Like

  7. I’m the author of the post, and I appreciate your linking. Sorry such questions offend people!

    The “explain the last three times someone complained” was to do the opposite of what you think I’m getting at. I’ve been told to change a grade, make the class easier, just get rid of complainers at all cost. Is this what you want? Every student can tell a story about this happening. In fact, one school I taught at they told us to expect it when the students know there’s a new professor–what I didn’t expect was the supervisor would side with the students. Every single time, no matter what, and if I held my ground, I knew I might not be back.

    “Do professors live in the community?”: Do the professors actually make enough money that they can afford to live here? Will professors be here after hours for my thesis defense or for the college play? For some tenure applications, participation in the community is a factor, right (even if it is not necessarily a large factor, depending on the school)? If this is part of what profs may be evaluated on, surely it’s a fair question.

    About the cars: Don’t take this so literal. It’s about, as you say, priorities, and not about the professors’ cars, but the students’ cars. Do you identify with the class of students here?

    About the library: I think it says a lot about the campus about how much the library gets used and what the impressions of the library are. Not all classes require research, obviously, but the library should be a central component of college academic life.

    As a professor, I am always asked to let prospective students sit in on courses. The writing course would be a good indicator of the rigor of the college and quality of the students, and what goes on in the classrooms. I’ve taught writing courses with observers.

    So, you missed the point, it’s not about professors, it’s about the campus culture and the corporate mentality of the college. In fact, the very opposite of the “professors are my slaves.” And I think you completely misread the comments, too, namely about how most admissions departments wouldn’t know the answers to many of these questions.

    Like

    1. “The “explain the last three times someone complained” was to do the opposite of what you think I’m getting at. I’ve been told to change a grade, make the class easier, just get rid of complainers at all cost. Is this what you want?”

      – The question is whether this is what a prospective student wants. The answer is: yes, of course.

      “Do the professors actually make enough money that they can afford to live here?”

      – So you are addressing this questionnaire exclusively to those extremely few schools that are located in Manhattan on downtown SF? Right? Because the majority of schools in this country are located in tiny village-like places that are much cheaper than cities.

      “Will professors be here after hours for my thesis defense or for the college play?”

      – People have to come to thesis defenses and don’t have to come to college plays. Where they live is irrelevant.

      “For some tenure applications, participation in the community is a factor, right (even if it is not necessarily a large factor, depending on the school)? If this is part of what profs may be evaluated on, surely it’s a fair question.”

      – You fulfill that requirement by giving 1 lecture at the community center once in 6 years. That can be done no matter where you live. I resent the suggestion that anybody should police where I choose to live for any reason.

      “Do you identify with the class of students here?”

      – The question is still extremely vulgar.

      “About the library: I think it says a lot about the campus about how much the library gets used and what the impressions of the library are. Not all classes require research, obviously, but the library should be a central component of college academic life.”

      – I already explained in this thread how I use the library every day without going there.

      “As a professor, I am always asked to let prospective students sit in on courses. The writing course would be a good indicator of the rigor of the college and quality of the students, and what goes on in the classrooms. I’ve taught writing courses with observers.”

      – Good for you. Are you prepared to accept that there are people who might not be interested in having observers thrust onto them?

      “So, you missed the point, it’s not about professors, it’s about the campus culture and the corporate mentality of the college. In fact, the very opposite of the “professors are my slaves.””

      – If I have to render accounts to anybody about where I choose to live, how I choose to transport myself and what I do after hours, this is precisely that mentality.

      Most of the questions you offer are very good. But you need to get rid of this need to collapse the public and the private.

      Are you British, by any chance?

      Like

      1. I think the questions are more about what a prospective HIRE not a prospective STUDENT should ask. If a candidate for a professorial position asks them, they sound completely normal. Is that where the confusion has crept in?

        Like

    2. Having a non-student discretely sitting in on your lecture as an auditor is one thing (I would have no problem with that), organizing publicly parents and prospective students sitting in your classroom disturbing the class is another thing and this is unacceptable and stupid!

      Like

    3. Having a non-student discretely sitting in on your lecture as an auditor is one thing (I would have no problem with that), organizing publicly parents and prospective students sitting in on your classes disturbing the class dynamic is another thing and this is unacceptable and stupid!

      Like

    4. “Is the library easy to use? Are the librarians easy to work with? Do your classes actually require you to walk into the library?”

      I think the first question “Is the library easy to use?” is a good question but not the others.

      Like

    5. Thanks for that great reply Christopher. I understand where you are coming from now. But on the initial read, I interpreted your questions like Clarissa did–i.e. that departments SHOULD kowtow to any undergraduate complaint and that professors needs to live close to their place of work and be at the beck and call of administrators or students or they are “bad faculty.” But now I see my mistake. Sorry for the premature offense! And those really are great questions. 🙂

      Like

      1. “But helicoptering parents would use that for their bullying agenda.”

        Well we can debate all day whether or not negative intended consequences can come from an action or a piece of advice .But I do think it’s important to consider the spirit with which the advice was offered. This is a faculty member interested inn education and who actually _wants_ to preserve faculty authority. So I am acknowledging that I misunderstood his intent. 🙂

        In any case, I am happy that he wrote the piece. It’s nice to have some good advice about higher education out there. I’m tired of these hysterical proclamations warning students away from getting a degree and I appreciate his post.

        Like

        1. Yes, most of the questions are very good and useful.

          I always maintain a very big distance with the students, so when I imagine students asking all those questions about where I live and what I do after hours, I feel very disturbed.

          Like

  8. Having a non-student discretely sitting in on your lecture as an auditor is one thing (I would have no problem with that), organizing publicly parents and prospective students sitting in on your classes disturbing the class dynamic is another thing and this is unacceptable and stupid!

    Like

  9. One of my colleagues used to brag about how she went to her husband’s college professors and demanded to know why he didn’t receive an A. The guy was a 30-year-old former military pilot.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.