Choosing which college you’ll attend is likely the biggest decision you’ll have to make in your life so far. It may be tempting to choose your mom’s alma mater or make dad proud by applying to a college based on his favorite football team – but this decision is all about you. There are many things to consider when choosing a college. So…where do you begin?
Judi Robinovitz, a certified educational planner with more than 30 years of experience, says start by creating a well-researched list of colleges and universities.
“Think about important factors like location and size, the type of college you want to attend, student culture on campus, and cost.” she said. “Then create your list with target schools that you’re most interested in, “safeties” you believe are a sure thing, and even a few “reach” schools – because, as the saying goes, if you don’t ask, you don’t get!”
Should I Stay, Or Should I Go?
When thinking about how to choose a college and create your list, consider distance. Are you ready to spread your wings and explore a new state, or would you prefer a school closer to home? As mentioned in the Ultimate Guide on How to Choose a College, some students prefer a local community college or a university within driving distance, while others welcome the independence of being on their own. Some students may even want to study abroad.
Keep in mind several considerations regarding location. For example, attending college out of state is typically more expensive. Not only does tuition cost more, but you’ll also incur travel expenses if you fly or drive to and from. On the other hand, experiencing new climates and embracing out-of-state adventures might be high on your ‘must-have’ list. Weigh the pros and cons of in-state versus out-of-state. What’s right for you?
Size is among the important considerations when choosing a college. Some students thrive in a small university with smaller class sizes where professors likely know them by name. Others, however, gravitate to larger universities complete with football teams, marching bands, and a wider range of majors, courses, internships, and extracurricular opportunities.
Vanessa Stein, LCSW, is Assistant Director of Outreach and Prevention at the University of Central Florida, one of the largest universities in the nation. She says that transitioning to college can be a big change for some students, but there are staff, faculty, and other students who can ease a student through.
“Getting involved on campus can make a big school feel smaller,” she said. “Joining a club, volunteering, forming study groups with classmates, working on campus…There are people similar to you, who hold the same identities or values; using campus resources can help you locate them.”
A ‘Major’ Decision
It’s easy to focus on factors such as football team ranking, school prestige (‘hard-to-get-into), or if it’s the university your friends are talking about. But because you’re here to get an education, one of the most important questions for you to answer is – does it offer your desired degree and major?
For example, if you plan to major in music education or art history, your list of universities might look different than that of your best friend who plans to major in engineering. In addition, because many students change majors at some point, you may want a university that offers a broad range of majors rather than a specialized university (changing from aviation to political science? You’ll have more options at a traditional university).
If you haven’t decided on a major yet, don’t worry – plenty of students are in the same boat. In fact, “undecided” is the most popular “major” among students applying to college! But before you zero in on applying for undecided, review college websites to learn about their various programs of study: familiarize yourself with available majors and courses. Don’t know where to start? Select a school subject that you particularly enjoy and then do an online search for colleges offering that major or even college that are ranked in that major (e.g., US News ranks colleges’ computer science majors). However, don’t select a college solely because it’s ranked high in a particular major; ranking constantly changes and may be based on which professors are currently teaching in that particular department. Highly ranked doesn’t equate with “best match” for you.
The Price We Pay
Whether you choose in-state or out of state…small or large…one thing is certain: College tuition is expensive.
Although tuition varies widely, according to U.S. News & World Report, the estimated average cost of tuition and fees for the 2021-2022 school year is $43,775 at private colleges, and $28,238 for out-of-state students at public colleges, and $11,631 for in-state students at public colleges. You have to add a room, board, and books to that – perhaps another $20,000/year.
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to finance your college education; a great deal of assistance is available.
Your parents may have purchased a pre-paid college plan to help. Many states offer merit-based scholarships, such as the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program. A variety of other state and local scholarships, grants, and financial aid packages may be available to you.
FAFSA: It’s important to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form before each college year. Colleges use it to determine your financial aid eligibility, and typically award need-based aid based on the information it contains.
STUDENT LOANS: When you apply for financial aid, you will likely be offered a variety of loans. While federal student loans may be a good option for some, it’s important to understand that you are entering into a legally binding agreement making you responsible for fully repaying that debt – with interest. Ensure that you fully understand the terms and conditions before considering or committing to a loan.
The best way to prepare for college expenses is to start planning early. Begin searching for college scholarships as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. In addition to online scholarship searches, ask your school’s college counselor about scholarships that you may qualify for. Look into potential merit-, service-, or talent-based (athletic, music, art) scholarships, if applicable. Many of the best scholarships are offered directly by the colleges, and you’ll be able to apply for them with your college applications.
For additional information about how to pay for college, review the information and resources available on www.studentaid.gov and check out the articles, Death from College Cost Sticker Shock…and How to Avoid it: Part 1 and Death from College Cost Sticker Shock…and How to Avoid it: Part 2.
Campus Life – and Beyond
While your academic life is paramount, a healthy work-life balance is also crucial. Your campus and college town will be your home for the next four years. Consider both on- and off-campus opportunities available for social and academic enrichment.
On-Campus: Many college freshmen prefer to live on campus – it’s a great way to make new friends, be close to classes and on-campus activities, and learn your way around. Most colleges offer on-campus residence options, from suite-style where four students share one bathroom to the more social and traditional dorms where an entire floor shares restroom facilities Some have living-learning communities (LLC)s in which students with similar interests reside together. Research the residence options at your prospective colleges: Do they meet your needs?
What other on-campus amenities are important to you? Some universities have a centralized student union offering food options and activities like bowling, movies, and art classes. If you’re majoring in music or biology, you may want to look closely at the school’s music practice rooms and science lab facilities. Do school amenities include a fitness and health center, specialized libraries, quiet study spaces, maker spaces, tennis courts, and others essential to you?
When it comes to social activity, colleges have something for everyone. Would you enjoy a club related to your major, a special-interest club, or a competition club such as debate or robotics? Perhaps you’re considering Greek life and plan to join a social or academic fraternity or sorority. Do you want to become involved with student government, the marching band, or the color guard...or would you prefer a quieter campus where you can keep to yourself? Think about the on-campus activities and amenities you’re most interested in (many colleges allow students to create their own clubs and special interest groups).
Off-Campus: Although many students – especially freshmen – spend the most time on campus, there will be occasions when you want to venture off. In fact, it’s likely that you’ll live off-campus at some point during your undergraduate career. Familiarize yourself with the surrounding neighborhood to ensure it meets your safety requirements and other needs. What are off-campus apartments like? Will you need a car, or is everything within walking distance? Does the town have safe and reliable public transportation?
Visit the campus and town to feel the vibe; check out college websites and social media pages to review the clubs, events, and social activities offered.
Happily Ever After
Although your undergraduate years are important – likely one of the most memorable periods of your life – it’s what happens after college that’s even more crucial. Your main goal: to graduate with a degree that will lead to a successful career.
Before committing to a college, consider their retention and graduation rates. While admission rates tell us how many students get accepted, retention rates indicate how many stay (especially after their freshman year), and graduation rates show what percentage earn their degree. This information can help you decide if a particular college is a good fit.
In that vein, consider the college’s career resource center and job placement services. Does the college offer student internships and mentorships in your field of study? Do they have a reputation for successfully placing graduates? Many colleges conduct career fairs, offer professional development workshops, and provide other job placement assistance. Your list should consider these important resources.
Your Perfect Fit
You may wonder, Does It Matter Which College I Go To?. Our answer is an unequivocal Yes. You’ll set yourself up for success by choosing an institution that best meets your needs.
Furthermore, Robinovitz believes that choosing your college is a highly personal decision.
“Although it’s a good idea to seek advice from parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and other trusted adults in your life – ultimately, the decision is yours,” she said. “Make your list…visit the campus…talk to current and former students…decide which factors matter most to you…and choose the college that feels like home.”
For a comprehensive overview about choosing your perfect fit, check out the Ultimate Guide on How to Choose a College.