Choosing a College or University:
Choosing a college or university is possibly a student’s biggest decision to this point in their young life. While there are multiple factors in choosing the “right” college, with a little bit of planning, time and effort this process will be but a speed bump on the road to higher education. After having considered academic program and major, there are other factors that will help make your decision easier. Let’s examine a few common areas of concern for families looking to select a college or university:
Location can be the most contentious topic for students and their parents. In fact, it ranks number one in importance sited by both student and parent. Why? You may prefer that your student stay close to home, while they have their heart set on leaving the area and becoming “independent.” Expenses (which we’ll explore in greater detail later) are also affected by location. In-state tuition is significantly less expensive than out-of–state tuition without participating in an undergraduate exchange program. Emotions will be high discussing the pros and cons of various locations. Be prepared. Have a game plan for your conversation, don’t just say “because I say so and I’m paying for it.” Students are receptive to constructive input on expenses, housing, student population, and environment.
Environment refers to type of school, school setting, size, student population and/or various affiliations. If your student learns more effectively in a small, rural setting this should factor into your decision. However, if your child feels stifled by their current surrounding and longs to attend a diverse, large, urban university this too should be considered. While campus and city size should certainly be considered, so too should the make-up of the student body. How many incoming freshman does each institution have? What is the percentage of male to female students? If your student needs more one on one time, closely review faculty staff ratios.
Admissions requirements can be the great equalizer for discussions on college selection. If your student does not meet requirements including deadlines, tests, test scores, GPA, class rank or various others all other factors are moot. You cannot attend a college no matter how badly you would like to if you don’t meet standard admissions criteria. Further, criteria vary greatly between institutions.
There are only two “fixed” costs to higher education, tuition and fees. Everything past these two items can be raised or reduced based on behavior. For example, room and board. Students who live on campus tend to have higher living expenses including “board.” Moreover, parents and students can choose to live in higher end student housing and/or elect more generous meal plans. Books are another good example. Students today can rent, buy used and even swap books to save money. These all contribute to a student’s total cost of attendance.
One expense that gets little attention but can really add up is application fees and deposits. Students and their parents would do themselves well to winnow down school “favorites” to three. Application fees vary and can get over $150, it’s important to spend as little getting to school as possible. Once you’re in school you’ll have plenty more expenses to contend with.
Financial aid is an often over looked area of consideration for students and their parents. Some have the impression that financial aid will be the same regardless of chosen college/university. Nothing could be further from the truth. Schools offer varying dollar amounts of student aid. Some things to consider around financial aid include, scholarships available, tuition discounting, percentage of population receiving aid, total Perkins loan offerings and work study opportunities. Each of these could be substantially different between your chosen institutions.
Housing, like location, is an area of strong emotion for some students and their parents. Housing considerations can be a major deciding factor for prospective students. Some students have living standards that may be higher that what some colleges and/or universities are offering. Further, some institutions may require that you live “on campus” limiting the opportunity to find preferable housing. Conversely, many colleges do not offer on campus living. This has consequences for transportation, monthly budgeting et cetera. Last, campuses across our country sometimes experience housing shortages which can mean residence hall requirements will be instituted. For example, students may have to have seniority to be considered for certain halls or living areas.
College always has been and remains a very social experience. Because college is such a social period in life it is important to consider activities available at prospect institutions. If you’re a student that loves the outdoors, and urban setting is most likely not your best learning environment. Further, if your school does not have a “rec” department or intramural sports programs you may not be happy attending. If you are very active with a club or organization, chances are that the same club or organization has a college chapter. However, one school on your “favorites” list may not offer a chapter.
What’s Important to You?
This list is not all-inclusive. In fact, while on average this list makes up what “the average” student should be concerned about when choosing a college; you may not be “average.” It important for you to visit the campuses you are considering, ask questions that you have and take advantage of other opportunities to interact with each college. While this is an important decision, if you focus on what is most important to you, I’m confident your decision will be a good one and will enhance your college experience.