A lot of online college search tools and rankings lists are available to help students find top universities. But it takes more than a Google search to find the schools that offer the highest quality education in a specific major.
Many students don’t know what they want to study in college or have a clear idea of the career they want to pursue. To learn which schools have the top degree programs in a particular field, find out where graduates end up and talk to professionals working in that industry, college admissions experts say.
Professionals can give high school students with a major in mind insight into the types of skills that are essential now and explain where their industry is headed. Working professionals can also give students ideas about the types of resources and options that can enrich their undergraduate experience but aren’t offered everywhere, like paid research opportunities or study abroad trips within their major, experts say.
Students can use that information to create a college list and compare the types of classes and resources offered in each program.
[Find out how to make a college short list.]
“So if they want to major in computer science , then maybe talk to people in the field of computer science and say, ‘What is it that you wish you would’ve had as part of your training? What would have made a difference to you? What kinds of computer labs, or something like that, would have been helpful?'” says Colleen Ganjian, president of education consulting company DC College Counseling.
Students can reach out to their teachers, high school guidance counselors and families to learn about college programs and to find professionals if they don’t know anyone personally. For example, math teachers may be able to help students who want to study accounting find professionals and answer questions about schools and skills, experts say.
Students can also ask college career centers to introduce them to alumni. Bill Sliwa, dean of enrollment management at Moravian College, encourages students to try to shadow an alumni on their job, if possible, to get insight on how a particular program at that school prepared the graduate for life after college.
Teens can also get statistics on important factors like graduation and retention rates, how quickly the majority of students get jobs after graduation, the types of graduate schools students go to and the kinds of employers that hire students at the schools they’re considering from college career centers. Students can then compare academic programs and narrow their list to schools that match their goals.
For example, in a field like engineering where most students are looking for employment right after graduation, a program where 95 percent of graduates get jobs within three months may be better than a program where 65 percent of graduates are employed within 12 months of graduation, Ganjian says.
A teen who wants to go to a competitive graduate school should pay attention to where students at the college get accepted into graduate school.
“What you want to look for is the success rate from that program and where the graduates are sought after by employers or graduate schools. Ask questions about how large your job fair is when you’re bringing employers to campus, how many graduate schools are coming here to recruit from this program to get a better feel for how in-demand the graduates are from that particular field,” Sliwa says.
The best degree programs are often vetted and recognized by the industry, experts say.
Some degree programs like those in business, education and many of the health and science fields are accredited separately from the university. Programs that are accredited by organizations recognized by the Department of Education meet the set standards for adequately preparing students to work in those fields, experts say. Enrolling in an accredited program will make it easier for students to get jobs and transfer schools, if necessary, experts say.
Comparing statistics for programs and talking to teachers, colleges and professionals is the best way to get a sense of which colleges have the top programs in each major, but students who want to start their search online can look at rankings from industry publications in their desired career field. Unlike rankings that look at the quality of an entire institution, industry rankings are more likely to include the factors that are relevant to specific jobs, Ganjian says.
The best when it comes to college is subjective, experts say. Attending a school with a strong program in a particular field can help with a job search, but it’s more important for students to find and apply to colleges that match all aspects of campus fit like affordability, location, size and comfort.
“It doesn’t matter that the school has that major. They’re less likely to succeed if they don’t choose a school where they’re comfortable,” says Ilyan Nunez, director of college placement at KIPP New Jersey.
Teens should also find out how easy it is to switch degree programs at the schools they’re considering in case they decide to change majors, experts say.
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