Comparing Apples to Apples: A Guide to Evaluating Academic Programs

They are all the same…except for where they differ.*

In “Deciding on a Major,” Evan discussed things to consider when determining what you want to study in college. He talked about your passions, your skills, and the career in which you might be interested. This post, as the name implies, is about how to evaluate the quality of the programs you are considering. However, do not stress if you are still unsure about the major you want to study. You typically will have until the end of your sophomore year to declare a major, giving you ample time to explore your options.

For those who have already decided on a major, there are a few things you want to look at to make sure that you are entering not only a good school, but a program that will give you the best education and the best opportunities for employment or post-graduate school. Remember that this should only be one factor in your college search because you want to make sure that you are entering a good program but also attending the school that has all of the other qualities in which you are interested.

Take a look below for some ways to gauge the quality of a program (in no particular order) but keep in mind that some of this may be more important to you than others. These are merely suggestions to get you thinking.

As the category title may imply, the faculty are an important part of what makes a degree program high quality. If you can, take the time to meet and speak with at least one member of the faculty and/or the Chair of the department. This is important because you want to make sure that you are being taught by someone who is qualified to teach in your area of interest. You also want to get to know the personality of the professors you will be working with.

Notable Names

Here is where you should begin to do some research online or in official publications. Are there any professors that are known within their field for their work or their expertise in their field of study?


Continuing with your research, look at the types of faculty publications or projects. This will give you an idea as to how active the professor is in their field of expertise. Are they keeping up-to-date on the latest trends/issues? Are they contributing to the latest findings and research? An out-of-date professor cannot teach the most current content in their field.


Where did the professors get their degrees from? Did they study under any notable instructors? What was their area of study? Do they have the terminal degree in the area that they are teaching? Did they have a specific focus for their dissertation or doctoral project (ex: Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in fluid mechanics)? Where did they study?

Making sure you are getting an education that interests you and that will best set you up for success is important. There are a few key things you want to be thinking about as you peruse different schools and degree programs. These concepts, however, are best answered as part of a face-to-face conversation with a faculty member or the head of the department.


What school of thought (if applicable) does the program in which you are interested teach? For example, the Economics Department at Grove City College specifically teaches from the Austrian school of economic thought. This topic usually makes for good conversation in a job interview.

Teaching Style

How do the professors teach their subject? This may be a difficult question to find out on your own but makes for a good conversation with a member of the faculty. Most degrees are going to be taught the same way but you may notice some slight differences. What is one of the best ways to learn more about the answers to this question? Sit in on a class and then discuss the professor with some of the current students. Get multiple opinions.



This category is similar to the focus of the degree and is something that can be noted on a physical resume. For example, Grove City College has a Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering as opposed to a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering with a Concentration in Electrical or Mechanical. The difference? Specificity and level of knowledge/study. Yet within Grove City College’s Electrical Engineering degree, there is a concentration in Computer Engineering that allows our students to acquire a specialized focus. Students at Grove City College can graduate as Electrical Engineers with a specialized focus in Computer Engineering instead of Engineers with a specialized focus in Electrical Engineering.


Much like the concentrations, minors allow you to specialize your degree with auxiliary information and classes from other major programs. However, unlike concentrations, minors are not part of a degree and do not require a degree to obtain. For example, a student (provided they have elective credits in their major) can major in History and minor in Political Science. Note that the minor is separate from the History Department and does not require any History classes to complete. Ask yourself : are there additional classes I want to take or areas I want to specialize in outside of my major program? Maybe you just find the coursework fascinating but do not know if you intend on using it vocationally.  Either way, Grove City College has over 30 minors from which you can choose.

Numbers and stats are a great way to gauge any program. There are any number of rankings with some being more valid than others. For example, Grove City College is ranked as the #1 Top Value Private Liberal Arts College in the Nation by Consumers Digest. Each ranking is useful for a myriad of reasons and should be weighed using the description of the category and the organization doing the ranking. Below, are some pieces of information not specifically related to rankings for you to consider.

Student to faculty ratio

The ratio provides the number of students per faculty member and is a numerical gauge for the amount of personal interaction a student will get by their professor. This, however, does not quantify the quality of interaction nor does it guarantee personal attention.

Average Class size

Similar to the student-faculty ratio, this is a general gauge for the potential for personal attention by faculty. However, it is geared more toward the in-class interaction and ability to participate in class without getting lost in a sea of student faces. Regardless of the student-faculty ratio and average class size, try to ask about office hours. You want to make sure the professors are accessible outside of the classroom.

Don’t get “lost in a sea of student faces.” ***

Lab size (if applicable)

Essentially the same as the Class Size but specific to programs with a lab requirement.

Placement rate

There are three parts to this number: the placement rate, the response rate, and the time after graduation. Each is important for various reasons. First, the placement rate is important because it is a real world glimpse at what businesses outside of the school think of graduates of that institution and their employ-ability. Placement rate is also a good tool to evaluate the Career Services Office of the school. Next, the response rate is the percent of graduates that responded to the survey regarding placement. This will tell you the accuracy of the placement rate. For example, 90% placement with 25% response rate is a pretty lousy number because only a quarter of the graduates responded to the survey. If 1000 students graduated, only 250 graduates responded which means that only 225 graduates are known to have been successfully placed after graduation. Lastly, the time after graduation is important because it provides the success of placement within a certain amount of time. Traditionally, placement surveys have been conducted six months after graduation, however many colleges and universities have gone to a nine month or one year model. A year without a job is significantly longer that six months. Grove City College has a 95% placement rate with 96% response rate, six months after graduation.



A lot of information? Yes. Yet this information is only as important as you deem it. What matters is that you consider the program you are looking at and determine if it is going to achieve your academic and vocational goals. Remember, you are expecting to graduate with a degree from this program. What does that degree mean to you and the rest of the world?

Need some tips on the Admissions Interview? Check out our previous “Finding your Fit” post titled “7 Tips to Mastering the Admissions Interview.”

Stay tuned for help discovering the uniqueness of each campus you visit with our upcoming post about campus culture.

As always, please do not hesitate to comment below because we strive to be resources for you throughout the college search process. I included a lot of information so let me know if you need clarification about anything. Good luck!


* Image used from this site.

**Image used from this site.

***Image used from this site.

NOTE:  Grove City College is not officially affiliated or associated in any way to the organizations, individuals, or the ideas and opinions held by said organizations and/or individuals from which these images are pulled.

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