How to evaluate university offers – a 5-step approach

by May 1, 2021Education & Training0 comments

This article offers a simple 5-step process to help your child young adult analyse and evaluate university offers in order to make an informed decision with confidence and clarity. It organizes the confusing array of features a university future offers and suggests taking a thoughtful approach to their evaluation using 3 methods of analysis. It concludes with suggested resources to support the evaluation.

A university decision is no small matter. In fact for over 100,000 high school students who will make their decision this June about Canadian universities, it’s arguably life altering. The Globe & Mail reported in November 2020 that first year full-time enrolment at over 100 universities in Canada was down slightly to 126,000 from 132,000 in 2019.

If we assume first-year enrolment in September 2021 will be somewhere in that neighbourhood, give or take a few percentage points due to COVID, that’s how many students are right now wondering which universities will offer them a coveted spot. How will these approximately 120,000 students choose which lucky university deserves their trust for the next 4 years?

How will you help your young adults evaluate their university offers?

To the parents and loved ones out there, how will you help them decide? Will you lead, follow or get the proverbial hell out of the way? We recommend none of these! Or maybe a combo of all three.

Think back to when you made your decisions in high school about further education. Whose advice did you follow? How much research did you do? Had you even visited the university or college you attended? Or did you decide it wasn’t for you? However you decided, we suspect it was easier to make these decisions back in the day.

Though some things never change. Today, some young people make their decision based on where their friends are going. Others choose the university where their parents went (or where their parents want them to go). Or they choose to go to the only one within reasonable commuting distance to home. Many allow their passion to take over the reins of their decision after they fall in love with the campus or the city.

All of these gut feel instincts or practical reasons can work out just fine. Or they can lead to an expensive and disastrous start to one’s academic journey. We want to help you and your loved ones optimize this complex decision and avoid buyer’s remorse down the road.

Whose decision is it?

As a preamble to a discussion on this topic it’s worth stressing to parents the need to distinguish between facilitating your student’s decision rather than making it for them. Or unduly influencing it. Or leaving it entirely in their hands.

Chances are you’re paying a major portion of the expenses, if not all of them. So your input is important. But ultimately, their decision is an investment in their future – not yours! So they need to come to their own conclusion.

Use these tools to help guide them, not to decide for them! At the same time, they will gain a lesson in decision making that can be applied in many complex situations.

What makes this important decision so difficult for anyone?

For many. choosing which university to attend ranks among the most important decisions of a lifetime, resulting in significant consequences. Like other major life decisions, it can be confusing  because of the emotional tradeoffs and unknowns. It can be complex due to the many ingredients to be considered. But we make decisions all the time. So what’s so difficult or complex about this one?

First of all, it’s a big decision that most of us make infrequently if ever, navigating processes that are not familiar to us. We need to compare information that is neither complete nor consistently presented from school to school.

Second, decisions can be overly impacted by external and internal influences and biases. Whose biases?

  • Your own biases as a parent and potentially outdated views
  • Other family members and friends’ biases and views
  • Input from teachers, coaches and counselors
  • The applicant’s friends’ biases and associated peer pressure

Finally, as humans, we don’t always make purely rational and logical decisions. Instead, we can be overly influenced by emotion, gut instinct and just plain desire to get to the other side of the decision.

Why is it especially tough for teens?

For teenagers, making reliable confident decisions is made more challenging given their developmental stage of life. Their lack of specific or relatable life experience makes it unrealistic for them to make a fully objective decision about their choice of university or program. Although attending University fairs and open houses may provide some insights, don’t expect this to be the complete picture of what a new life at university will be like. They will only learn this down the road once they’ve made the decision – through exposure to academic realities and extracurricular experiences.

This is not to suggest that there isn’t value in sharing your previous experience or encouraging them to gain input from others. Getting outside opinions and insights can be extremely helpful. Additionally, emotion, instinct and gut feel all play an important role in good decision making.    

Ultimately, their university decision might be based primarily on gut feel, instinct, internal biases or peer/family pressure. However, there is value in making use of qualitative and quantitative analysis techniques to sort through what can be for many a confusing if not overwhelming array of options.

What approach to evaluating offers do we recommend?

We recommend taking a step-by-step analytical approach. If nothing else, such a process can reveal gaps between preferences based only on emotions, biases and outside influences versus the results obtained from a more thorough and personally meaningful evaluation of options. Identifying these gaps may result in reconsidering one’s choice and thereby avoiding an obvious and potentially costly mistake in time, money and effort.  Alternatively, applicants can assess these gaps, and determine whether they can live with these shortcomings, or possibly mitigate them, now that they have identified them.

We suggest you

1) use a few different analytical tools

2) follow a simple 5-step process and

3) download our templates to complete your own evaluation.

1. Use a few different analytical tools

It’s May 2021. June 1 is the earliest date by which universities (in Ontario) can ask you to accept your offer. By this point, applicants have already narrowed down the potential programs they most want to pursue. They have received offers from most if not all the universities under consideration. Perhaps since making their applications, they will have completed additional pre-screening, excluding universities that are not realistic for whatever reason:

  • They have not been admitted directly to their preferred program and do not want to compete for a spot after their first year.
  • The threshold for maintaining grade standards down the road is not realistic.
  • It’s not in a city where the applicant is willing or able to go.
  • They don’t like the campus.

To make a thorough evaluation of offers, it can help to make use of a tool or template. Although there are a variety of decision-making techniques available, it’s best to keep things fairly simple. We discuss three tools here, each one building on the previous one.

The Pros & Cons List

Create a table that lists the offers, then compare the pros and cons for each one against a set list of criteria or attributes important to the student. 

This is simple to use, however it only provides a qualitative result.  It does not allow you to weigh the relative pros and cons.

The Score Card

Create a table that lists offers and selection criteria. Score each offer against each criteria out of a score of five (5). In theory, the school with the highest score would be the preferred choice. 

This is relatively simple to use and provides a somewhat quantitative result that can be more easily ranked.  However, since it is unlikely that each attribute would be of equal importance to the candidate, the result may be skewed towards less important attributes.

The Weighted Score Card

Create the same table as in the Score Card, but include for each attribute a relative weight out of 5 that captures its importance to the applicant.

This is slightly more complex. Adding relative weights is still somewhat subjective. However, it has potential to provide a more balanced result in line with your student’s priorities. 

2. Evaluate university offers in 5 steps

Below are five simple steps you can work through with students to help students compare their options and come to a confident conclusion.

Step 1: Determine no more than 10 criteria for evaluation

Select the candidate universities to be compared based on offers received. Eliminate any offers that you know for certain you will not consider.  Then select the attributes or criteria for evaluation that are important to the applicant.

The first worksheet in our templates called Criteria contains multiple examples of criteria in four important areas of comparison:

  1. Academic Success Factors
  2. Reputational Considerations
  3. Campus & City Life
  4. Financial Considerations

This list is by no means intended to be exhaustive. We encourage applicants to add their own criteria if they can’t relate to any of those listed. Alternatively, modify the wording to fit your particular circumstances. Moreover, we suggest you do not attempt to use all of them in your evaluation. Instead, aim to keep the final criteria to a manageable list of potential “deal breakers” – i.e., 5 to 7 as a rough rule of thumb and no more than 10.

 

Step 2: Start with a quick Pro/Con list

The second worksheet illustrates an example of a Pro/Con list for three offers that lists the pros and cons of each offer on the basis of 7 attributes:

  • Program relevance and reputation
  • Offer of sports scholarships
  • Co-op option works with my varsity sport goal
  • Campus/city attractive to me
  • Close to outdoor activities for nature walks and hiking
  • Distance from home within 100 kilometres
  • Friends attending

We adapted the above attributes from the criteria list in the first worksheet. Attributes can be at different levels of granularity – for example, program relevance and reputation combines attributes from program and course features, academic support and university reputation. Friends attending is one of several specific attributes listed under Campus & City Life.

We list the criteria in either the pro or con column for each offer. We then conclude which offer we think ranks first, second and third. In our example, the student ranks University 1 first. Would you, based on the pros and cons provided? Discuss with your student what is their rational. Invite them to reflect on any cons that can be mitigated. For example, can meeting new friends in the first week make up for not knowing anyone yet? Can less money for a scholarship be mitigated by better co-op employment outcomes?

 

pro/con assessment

Step 3: The Score Card

The Score Card illustrated below introduces a quantitative assessment where the student rates each offer on a scale from 1 to 5 in relation to each criteria. This recognizes that each student will value different features about each offer. In the Score Card example, we use the same attributes as the Pro/Con list, but this time rather than making qualitative comments, we assign a raw score out of 5 to each of the 7 attributes. In our example, tallying each column of raw scores results in a tie between Offers 1 and 2, with Offer 3 receiving the lowest score. How can we break the tie?

The results provide a way to look more closely at important distinctions between each university’s offer. The tie suggests it will be helpful to  determine how important each criteria is to the student. We do this in the weighted score card.

Step 4: The Weighted Score Card

The weighted score card recognizes that not all criteria are of equal importance. Some attributes are more important to the applicant than others. So rather than assigning a simple raw score out of 5 to each attribute, the Weighted Score Card assigns a weight or relative importance to each attribute, then multiplies it by the raw score. Here is how our example applicant weighted the importance of each attribute based on a maximum importance of 5:

1) Program relevance and reputation – in top 10: weight of 4

2) Offer of sport scholarship: weight of 5

3) Co-op option works with my varsity sport goal: weight of 4

4) Campus/city attractive to me: weight of 3

5) Close to outdoor activities for nature walks and hiking: weight of 4

6) Distance from home within 100 km: weight of 3

7) Friends attending: weight of 2

By completing the simple math of “raw scores X relative importance”, and tallying the final scores for each university, the tie is broken. Offer 2 is in first spot, followed closely by Offer 1, with Offer 3 scoring well below the other two.

Does this mean your student should accept the offer from University 2?

 

Step 5: Making a final decision

It’s decision time. Do not feel compelled to pick the university with the highest score. Again, the results open a discussion. They can trigger a conversation about  important distinctions between each university’s offer and allow students to consider both their immediate needs as well as their longer term future.

The Weighted Score Card merely gives students a more balanced picture of their options. From looking at the relative importance of each criteria, they can more easily identify potential concerns that can be mitigated. For example, with only a five-point difference between Offers 1 and 2, you could argue both are good options. On the other hand, your student can see clearly where the advantages lie and can challenge him or herself about whether the tradeoffs can be mitigated.

For example, Offer 1 offers the best sports scholarship and many friends will be attending; however, the co-op option appears to be problematic. Let’s say this is because students must do some of their work terms in Fall and Winter which doesn’t work for the Varsity Athlete. Can the student talk with a co-op staff person or sports coach to see if this is negotiable?

Conversely, Offer 2 has the best program and co-op options. There is more nature nearby and it is a little closer to home. However, the Sports Scholarship is of clear importance to the student. Offer 2’s scholarship isn’t as attractive as Offer 1’s. Can the student negotiate better terms for their offer, or perhaps “reframe” his/her perception of the offer to take advantage of Offer 2’s many attractive features?

3. Download Our Templates & Access Other Resources

 

compare offers template

If your student is struggling with the decision, view our templates here and dowload a copy to do your own evaluation.

The file contains five worksheets – the first is the criteria list that you can scan to select your top 10. The next three are illustrations and templates for the analyses described above. The last one provides a blank Weighted Score Card with space for 10 criteria that compares 5 offers.

 

There are many potential sources for fact-based information that students can use to support their final decision-making, some of which they may have already consulted throughout the application process.

Make good use of each universities website, using the search feature to locate specific details. Phone or write to each candidate university with your specific questions. Go beyond the sales and marketing details you find in the Future Students section or Admissions page. Instead, visit the Current Students pages where you learn about the reality of the student’s day-to-day experience.

Visit the reputation surveys, but read them critically. Most universities in Canada will provide an excellent experience for your student, regardless of their “rank” in relation to another university.

Ask others, but aim to separate opinion from fact. Make use of a consultant or coach that specializes in the field. Contact colleagues, friends and family members you think will be knowledgeable about your questions.

Finally, visit this article for specific resources in relation to the categories in our criteria list: 1) academic success factors, 2) reputational considerations, 3) campus & city life and 4) financial considerations.

 

In conclusion

Congratulations to all those high school students in Canada who are fortunate to be in a position to decide among many possibilities.

We hope this article has provided perspective for you and a process that helps you decide which offer is the best one.

We close with two cautions.

First, all difficult decisions in life require trade-offs – in other words, a perfect offer is likely not possible. Each offer offers pros and cons – choosing one university’s benefits closes off the benefits from the one(s) you reject.

Second, the choice of which offer to accept is only the first step towards a successful university experience. The many hundreds of steps after this are somewhat under the will and discretion of the student.

Many studies have examined factors beyond raw intelligence that lead to academic success. For example, The Student Strengths Inventory was built to assess six such factors:

  • Academic Engagement
  • Academic Self-Efficacy
  • Campus Engagement
  • Educational Commitment
  • Resiliency
  • Social Comfort

Regardless of where one chooses to study, ultimate success is mostly about an individual student’s attitudes and beliefs, self perceptions, academic disciplines, commitment and actions.

So as your loved ones contemplate this important next stage of their adult life, remind them gently that the real power to build a positive university experience resides within them. But that’s a topic for a whole other article!

Thank you for reading our article. And good luck with the final decision.

 

Peter Reitknecht, P.Eng.

Peter Reitknecht, P.Eng.

Co-Author

Ruth Louden

Ruth Louden

Co-Author

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Resources to Compare Universities in Canada

Resources to Compare Universities in Canada

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