Choosing a College
1. My daughter, having been home unschooled (and perhaps for innate reasons as well), does not want to take courses that someone else has selected for her because that someone else thinks they would be good for her. One of our collections of information, put out by the Intercollegiate Studies institute (an organization I have not yet forgiven for the base cowardice of changing its name from the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists), is very useful in this regard. Its authors are in favor of a "core curriculum," so their approving comments provide a convenient way of warning my daughter away from schools with lots of requirements.
She was particularly put off by one school that has mandatory physical education. Her view was that although she could satisfy the requirement with dance, which she likes, its existence signaled a paternalistic attitude she disapproves of and will tend to attract students who like sports and/or paternalism, a negative signal for her.
2. My daughter is likely to find smarter students more interesting, so high average SAT scores are a positive signal, and the information is readily available.
3. My daughter shares my political attitudes but not my taste for arguing about them. Given that at almost any school she is interested in the orthodoxy will be far from her views, she wants someplace where she won't feel obliged to either conceal her views or spend a lot of her time defending them.
The comment by the tour guide at one school that he thinks capitalism is a good system but, so far as he could tell, he was the only member of his class with that opinion was a mild negative signal, as was the comment by another tour guide that, although she was herself politically liberal, she wished her classes were not so consistently on that side of the political spectrum. On the other hand, the comment by an econ professor at one school that he deliberately makes politically incorrect economic points in his environmental economics class (if you want there to be more trees, don't recycle paper) and that the reaction he gets is curiosity, not hostility, was a mild positive signal.
More generally, I found it informative to wander into the economics department and get into a conversation with one of the professors, both because being a fellow economist provides a link and because economists are likely to find themselves at odds with some of the political orthodoxy almost anywhere, hence to be sensitive to such issues.
4. Still more generally, I try to find links not provided by the school--independent views. We have long been active in the SCA, a group that does historical recreation and has local chapters at many schools. So, where possible, we arranged to talk with someone from the local chapter to get his or her view of the school. In one case, that led to adding a school to our list--the student running the local chapter in Northfield, which we visited to see Carleton, was a student at nearby St. Olaf's, and visiting with her gave our daughter a very attractive view of that school ("there's music everywhere"). It's now on her list.
5. Probably the most valuable information comes from casual contact with students. Most of a student's interaction is with other students, so the feel of the student environment is critical. Pretty clearly, a lot of the reason my older son enjoyed Harvey Mudd was that it was a society he fit into, where characteristics that had made him an outsider in high school made him a valued insider in college.
The main source of that information was sleepovers arranged by the colleges; our daughter met with a student--in every case a freshman--and spent the night in her dorm. That provided a chance to socialize with her hostess and her friends.
It's a good system, but a very noisy signal, since student society within a single college is likely to vary a good deal. She got a strongly positive impression of one school, where her hostess was very much her sort of person--she and her friends spent their spare time playing guitar, singing and talking. She got a negative impression at another where her hostess, although obviously a nice person trying to do her best, considered watching television the natural way of spending free time. How much of that reflected differences in the schools is hard to know.
I made some attempt to get a picture of student society myself by eating in the dining hall and listening to conversations, but it would take a lot more of that than I had an opportunity for to produce much useful information.
6. Our daughter attended classes at all the schools she visited. At most of them her impression was positive. There was one economics class where she had to refrain, out of considerations of courtesy, from contradicting the professor, which left a very mildly negative impression. He had asked for examples of goods with inelastic demand, a student has offered water, and he had agreed--presumably because it did not occur to him that drinking water, for which one would expect a very inelastic demand, represents a trivial fraction of total water consumption.
None of it adds up to a spreadsheet formula that we can use to calculate a first, second and third choice. But I think it all helps.