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Excellent Schools for the Very Good Student

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This is a guest post by Stuart Nachbar, the President of, a leading college admissions blog and guide to the best values in higher education. For more advice and information contact him at

I’m often asked: What is a “good” or “excellent” school?

It’s not always the one that is the most selective or has students who scored exceptionally high on the SAT or the ACT.  Terms such as “quality” and “reputation” are bandied about within higher education, but they have no real meaning.

The best way to learn if a school is good or excellent is to do research. You must find the answers to these questions: 

  • Does the school engage students early and help them towards an academic direction?
  • Does it effectively guide students to graduation?
  • Does it help students complete their degree with as little debt as possible?
  • And does it provide them with a network that will help them for life?

Fortunately, there are numbers that can help you answer these questions. They can be found within resources, including the school itself, that are available for free. These numbers include:

  • The freshman retention rate.  Anything over 85 percent is excellent for a liberal arts college. Over 90 percent is excellent for a larger university. That may sound strange at first, subjecting the small school to a lower retention rate, but 15 percent of a smaller number of people is a small number of people. An excellent freshman retention rate is a positive reflection on the admissions office. They admitted a class that was likely to succeed. It is also a positive reflection on academics and student services. The students stay because they’re engaged and happy. Every admissions officer should know their school’s freshman retention rate. If not, ask her for a copy of the school’s most recent Common Data Set.
  • The four-year graduation rate. Only five state-supported colleges and universities have four-year graduation rates in excess of 70 percent: The University of Virginia, The College of William and Mary (VA), The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, The University of Michigan and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. If you are seriously interested in a private college or university, it should be one that graduates students at a rate as good or better than an excellent state school. Again, every admissions officer should know their school’s four-year graduation rate. You can also find it on the school’s Common Data Set.
  • Student indebtedness. The most a student can borrow in Federal Stafford loans, expecting to graduate in four years, is $27,000. One word to people considering a much higher level of debt to attend a “dream” school: don’t. The Project on Student Debt has average student borrower indebtedness for nearly every school. Go to their site, click on the map of the United States in the right hand corner, choose your state and zero in on your school.
  • Alumni base. You want to know how many living alumni a school has, where they live, and where recent graduates prefer to live and work. You want to go to a school where there are alumni who live and work in the same place you want to live and work. Some schools are truly global; others are mainly local. 

Now suppose you do not have the 4.5 GPA and the 30+ ACT or 1350+ SAT to help you get into an “elite” school or possibly receive a free ride from your home state university. Are there excellent schools for you?

Yes--and I’ve made a list to start you off.

These private schools retain more than 85 percent of their freshmen, graduate 70 percent or more of their students within four years, and left the average student borrower with less than--or just a insignificant tad over--$27,000 in student loan debt in 2011, the last year data is available. 

Centre College (KY)

Clark University (MA)

College of Wooster (OH)

DePauw University (IN)

Elon University (NC)

Furman University (SC)

Hillsdale College (MI)

Muhlenberg College (PA)

Rhodes College (TN)

Sewanee, The University of the South (TN)

Skidmore College (NY)

St. Lawrence University (NY)

Taylor University (IN)

University of Richmond (VA)

Ursinus College (PA)

Wheaton College (IL)

Williamette University (OR)

Wofford College (SC)

But numbers tell only part of the story. Every campus community has its own look and vibe. The final decision is hard when you need to consider what a school can do for you and how being there can make you feel.


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