Choosing a college can be an overwhelming task, as there are almost 4,000 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the United States alone. Understandably, most students and parents are only aware of their local community college, some in-state public and private schools, and “brand name” colleges, like Ivy League schools or universities with popular sports teams. A little research can also open the door to thousands of lesser well-known and “hidden gem” colleges that provide a great education and result in amazing job opportunities.
Determining which college or university is right for you begins with understanding your (and your family’s) priorities. A great first step is to talk about some of the important factors in choosing a college, so that your research can have some direction. A best-fit school is one that is a good match academically, socially, and financially. Here are some of the important factors to consider:
Major: Do you have an academic interest or major? Some colleges and majors are best suited for students who are sure about their desired career path, and other colleges can be great fits for students who are undecided or are interested in a variety of subjects. If you have a desired major, researching relevant programs at your schools of interest is an important step.
Degree: Are you looking to earn an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or an advanced degree like an MS, PhD, JD, or MD? Some colleges excel at facilitating a path to direct employment, others are a great foundation for continued education, and some are adept at both.
Rigor: Academic rigor is also an important factor in choosing a best-fit college. Do you perform best in a competitive or collaborative environment? Is “work/life balance” important to you? Do you like surrounding yourself with people with varied academic priorities and backgrounds, or is it important for you to be with people who share your academic priorities?
Acceptance rates and accepted student demographics: When narrowing your college list, be sure to consider the statistics that each school provides so that you can determine your academic compatibility and understand your odds of acceptance.
Opportunities: Do you want to complete a co-op or internship, be able to conduct research, join an honors program, or maybe study abroad?
Life after college: Understanding a college’s success with facilitating a path to the workforce or advanced education is an important consideration. Researching graduation rates, career placement assistance and post-undergraduate acceptance rates can be helpful in narrowing down your college list.
A best-fit college or university is more than just academics. Your school will be your “home away from home” for a number of years, so your college should be a good social fit as well. The social factors to consider in the college search are wide-ranging, but here are a few to get your research started:
Location and size: Do you prefer an urban, suburban or rural area? Do you like the “college town” feel or prefer the hustle and bustle of city life? Does a large, public university feel like an exciting adventure, or does a smaller, private college with small class sizes feel most comfortable? Do you want to live at home, close to home, or a completely new environment? Travel time and method are important considerations. Do you prefer a warm climate or want all four seasons?
Campus social climate: Do you want to go to school with students who live in your area or state? Is diversity important to you? Do you prefer schools with a Greek (fraternity/sorority) presence? Are you an avid sports fan interested in strong school spirit? Other considerations could include religious opportunities or political climate.
College costs have skyrocketed, and the cost of attendance at some universities hovers around $80,000/year. Having a discussion about your family’s budget and method of paying for college is very important. Here are main sources of funding to consider:
Out-of pocket costs: How much do parents and the student each expect to contribute each year?
Loans: If you plan to take out loans to fund college, be sure to research the varied options, and who will have ultimate responsibility for repayment.
Need-based grants: Depending on your family’s financial situation, you may qualify for some need-based grants from colleges. Grants do not need to be paid back.
Merit awards or gift aid: Some schools offer merit awards or gift aid that does not need to be paid back. Some merit awards are renewable for future school years and may have minimum gpa requirements to maintain.
Outside scholarships: Students can apply for numerous local, national, and special interest scholarships. Most outside scholarships are one-time awards and are not renewable, though there are some exceptions.
Keep in mind that some colleges with high “sticker prices” may be generous with need-based or merit/gift aid, especially schools that are not highly selective.
Choosing best-fit schools for your college list involves researching academic, social, and financial priorities. Talking about these important factors as a family can help you focus your college search.