This is what I recommend:
- Visit campus when school is in session and do an individual visit at anyplace that you are serious about. Visit programs are fine to get an overview, but I would visit 1:1 to the schools on the short list.
- While there, watch how staff interacts with each other and with faculty/students. Do they call students by name when passing in the hall? Greet each other? Treat faculty and staff the same? I think you can tell a lot about the climate from informal interactions. Is it a “we” place or a “they” place — you want to go somewhere where the staff genuinely likes each other because they will work together better and be more likely to resolve problems for your student.
- Don’t pick a school based on a major, faculty member or coach. Yes, the institution should have the major that the student thinks they want initially, but chances are they will change majors and/or the individual person could leave. I used to tell students that they were looking for a fit in three areas: academically, socially (all out-of-classroom including athletics, involvement, the city, etc.) and financially. Consider it as a whole. The place with great academics may not be the best choice overall.
- See your final financial aid package before deciding. The “too expensive” school may become affordable and the lesser-cost one may actually require more personal investment. Know the numbers before you choose.
- Ask about freshmen retention: what are the numbers, what are the reasons students leave, what are they doing to help students stay. It will also tell you a lot about the climate and whether there is a culture of students-are-on-their-own or whether the institution invests resources toward student success.