Darron Collins, president of the private College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, advises families on the best way to decide on a college. — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

By Darron Collins

The beauty of our higher education system is its diversity. Our more than 4,000 colleges and universities offer an often bewildering choice of courses, formats and cultures. In these coming weeks, college-bound high school seniors and their parents will try to balance the merits of such issues as big versus small, rural versus urban, research-focused versus teaching-focused, higher cost versus lower cost, prestigious versus less well-known and public versus private.

Here’s an especially important factor they may want to add to the mix: how much “experiential learning” truly takes place in class and on campus. When I was making the college decision 30 years ago, I thought that size was my most important criterion. I didn’t want to “be just a number,” which I thought I would be at a big school. But I realize now that the issue wasn’t only about numbers — I wanted close and frequent access to the faculty, and to work with them to learn. I didn’t want to be lectured at; I wanted to have conversations and collaborate with my professors and peers — to learn by doing, not just by listening.

It seems to me that many students today, perhaps more than ever, crave connection with the core of the university. They’re not focused on Greek life, plush dorms, climbing walls or lazy rivers. The core to them means the faculty and whether they will be able to work with the faculty and their classmates to make discoveries, to engage in exploring new ideas and old, and to truly experience the learning process.

Admissions departments understand this desire for exposure to the core. “You’re not a number here” is a phrase you’ll find sprinkled generously in college admissions materials. The question is, what does being more than a number really look like?

Student population may seem like a good starting point. But instructors at some schools in the 2,000- to 5,000-student range may have little interest in working closely with undergraduates. At the same time, some enormous schools have cultivated excellent teachers who stress the importance of dialogue with students.

Student–faculty ratio is a metric often used as a proxy for this direct exposure to the faculty. For example, anything under 12:1 might be considered tight-knit. But any college database will list hundreds of colleges and universities with student to faculty ratios in that range. A low student-to-faculty ratio simply doesn’t guarantee that faculty are interested in undergraduate teaching and in engaging actively with students.

In fact, there is no precise metric. That being said, there are some things students seeking a tight-knit college experience might consider on that upcoming admitted-student visit. Here are five:

  1. Have lunch in the dining area. Are there people who look like faculty members? Better still, are they eating with students? As hard as this might be, tell them you are considering attending the college and ask them if you can join their conversation. If there aren’t any faculty around or if they don’t immediately invite you to sit down and join the conversation, that’s a bad sign.
  2. Sit in on a class with fewer than 20 students labeled as a seminar. Do students ask questions and make comments? Better still, do they challenge the assumptions of the faculty? How do the faculty respond to such challenges? Seminars can indicate dialogue-focused instruction, but they can also be marketing speak for “small lecture.”
  3. A week prior to your visit, search the website and find three faculty members who are doing something you find interesting. Write and ask to find a time to talk during your visit. It’s a warning sign if you get no response. Faculty should be engaged in the admissions process and should find time to at least say hello. If you do meet with them, find out if they involve students — including those in the first and second year — in their work. Faculty members at teaching colleges typically do research or some other form of creative, intellectual work. You’re looking for places where students collaborate with faculty on these endeavors, not where they’re excluded.
  4. Thoroughly review the course syllabi in all of the departments you are curious about. How often do you see the word “project” or something similar? The more, the better. Courses, programs, or majors that emphasize project-based learning are time and labor intensive and require the focused, collaborative experience you are looking for.
  5. Talk to as many students as possible, not just your guides. Ask students about the previous questions, as well as if students and faculty get together in settings beyond the classroom. Ask them if faculty members from different departments talk to each other and collaborate.

Not everyone can make visits in person, but you can ask questions and seek information via email and telephone. College is an important choice — students and parents need to be proactive during this process in order to reach the best decision.

Thirty years ago, I found the close experience I sought at College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine. COA puts faculty–student dialogue at the core of the institution. The college is strategically small, with a student population capped at 350 and a student-faculty ratio of 10:1. Today, as COA’s president, I work with our students, faculty, and alumni to continue to build an environment where student-faculty collaboration is the cornerstone of who we are.

In today’s political climate, it’s especially important for students to gain the skills that come from engaging in conversation and dialogue with faculty and peers, in asking and responding to complex, nuanced questions, and in respectfully but appropriately challenging authority. Colleges and universities that enable this to happen are challenging, exciting, formative places, and are helping us shape the kind of critical thinkers we’ll need in the years ahead.