Factors to Consider When Choosing a College or University

What to consider when choosing a college or university by Becton Loveless

You have probably heard it over and over again: choosing a college is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life. And it's true. Where you attend college will have a lasting impact on your personal and professional life.

But the truth is, many students select a college based on emotion or a very limited set of criteria-sometimes just a gut feeling. While this won't preclude you from academic success, such an important decision should probably undergo a higher level of scrutiny.

If you're shopping around for colleges, you're going to want to consider a broad range of factors, such as location, size, cost, academic quality, campus safety, choice of majors, as well as other factors that are important to you personally.

Below are some important factors to consider when choosing a college. These factors start general and get more specific. As you narrow down your list of schools, you're going to want to ask more detailed questions and dig deeper to find out if that school will be a good fit for you.

Ask Yourself Why You are Going to College

This is a simple question, but the answer rarely is. Most high school students don't know what they want to do when they grow up. But remember, you're choosing a college, not a major. Selecting the best college is just as much a process of learning about yourself as it is about prospective schools.

You may not know what career you want to pursue after graduation, but you certainly know what your interests are and what you're good at. Thinking about this will help you figure out if you're leaning towards liberal arts or a technical field.

Self-refection will also help you get a grasp on other factors. Do you want to attend a large or small school? Far away or close to home? Expensive or affordable? As you ask yourself these questions, you will begin to have a better understanding of your own priorities.

It may even be possible that you're not quite ready for college yet. You may want to take a year off, but make sure that you spend it wisely. Other countries have a tradition of students taking a year after high school to travel, work or volunteer. This is not a tradition in the United States, so you want to make sure you do something productive with your time. When you finally do apply for colleges, they will want to know what you did with your free time during the prime of your life.

Accreditation

Before you spend any time investigating a college, first make sure it is accredited. This means that an officially licensed organization has vetted the school and reviewed its curriculum to verify that it meets basic academic standards for higher education.

Most schools will readily provide this information on their website-usually on the About or Admissions pages. If you're having trouble finding it, just call or email the admissions department.

A college or university can be nationally or regionally accredited. Within a college, specific schools, departments or programs can also have their own accreditation. This ensures that your degree will be recognized by employers and other institutions of higher education.

Type of School

The real question is, what type of education do you want? Most students would respond that they don't know yet. But you don't have to choose a major or decide on a career…not just yet.

Take a step back and ask yourself some basic questions: Where do your interests and abilities lie? Are you better suited for liberal arts subjects or more technical fields, such as math, science and engineering? By the time you're a junior or senior in high school, you probably have an idea.

Most colleges and universities lean in one direction or another. A small liberal arts college will not have much to offer a student that wants to be an engineer. She will want to apply to larger research universities that have the resources for engineering, as well as other technical and scientific fields.

Think of the type of school as your broadest level of criteria. It is very general and is geared to narrow down your list. Once you apply it with other factors, described below, your options will become clearer.

Geographic Location

Most students have an idea as to whether they would like to stay close to home or not. Do you want live in a big city or somewhere a little quieter? Does a party campus sound like a fun part of the college experience or just a distraction? What about weather and regional culture?

Perhaps most importantly, can you afford to go out-of-state, especially to a more expensive big city? We'll discuss cost in more detail below, but choosing to attend college outside of your home state will automatically make everything more expensive.

Geographic location can have a big impact on your overall college experience. Even if you like the school, if you hate where it's located the next four years could be tough. If you're looking at schools in a particular city, make sure you actually like it there. If you haven't visited in a while, you should probably schedule a trip.

Also consider crime and safety, not just for the city but the campus itself. Almost every major school will provide crime statistics for campus, and many will include surrounding areas. You might think of college as a safe and fun place, and it is. But crime happens, and crime rates vary widely from school to school.

Size of School

There are thousands of quality schools out there and they come in practically all sizes. A school's size can tell you a lot about it. And much like type of school and geographic location, you probably have some sort of idea about the size of school you'd like to attend.

Large colleges usually have more resources. This can include campus facilities such as student housing, libraries, computer access, health centers, athletic facilities, culture and entertainment. Large research universities also tend to have large budgets to invest in faculty, classroom technology and research and development labs for science, engineering and other fields of study.

Perhaps most importantly, large institutions usually provide more academic options, including hundreds of different majors and concentrations. This can be especially attractive if you haven't settled on a major or are looking to pursue an interdisciplinary major.

Small colleges have plenty to offer that larger institutions cannot. Many colleges stay small so they can specialize in liberal arts education or even a certain discipline within liberal arts. The campus and the class sizes will be smaller, and the overall college experience is usually much more intimate.

Remember, a small and cozy school can still be located in a big, bustling city. And a big public university can be located in a small town (these are often the party schools). It's important to judge the size of the school in the context of the surrounding environment.

Is a Big or Small College Right for Me?

A Large College Might Be Right for You If…


  • You do well with learning independently. You don’t often need help from teachers, and if you do need help, you’re able to recognize it and seek it out.
  • You want a wide variety of clubs, sports, and activities to choose from on a daily basis.
  • You’re okay with your professors not knowing your name, or you’re willing to make yourself stand out and get to know your professors.
  • You want everyone to recognize the name of your school when you tell them where you go.
  • You love sports and want to cheer on your team at big games.
  • You’re undecided for your major or you’re pursuing an obscure major that isn’t offered at smaller schools.
  • You’re more inclined to go after what you want and understand that you will have to compete with a lot of other students for opportunities.
  • You want to have a large alumni network when you graduate.
  • You get energized and exhilarated by large groups of people.
  • You don’t mind being taught by teaching assistants instead of your professor.
  • You can take the responsibility to regularly visit your academic adviser and make sure you’re on track for your major.
  • You feel confident that you’ll be able to find your own community to feel a part of so you don’t get lost in the crowd. You don't want to see people you recognize everywhere you go.
  • You want research to be a major part of your education. This can be helpful in getting admitted to graduate school.
  • You don’t mind taking a bus or walking a bit to get to class.

A Small College Might Be Right for You If…


  • You depend on support and guidance from teachers. You have trouble recognizing when you need help, and rely on your teachers to step in when you need them.
  • You’re okay with having fewer club, sport, and activity options. (Although there will still be plenty at almost all schools, you will just find a larger variety, as well as more specialized options at larger schools)
  • You want your professors and classmates to know who you are, and you want to interact with them in a small class setting.
  • You don’t mind if people outside your local area have never heard of your school.
  • You don’t like attending sporting events, or you prefer smaller venues.
  • You are certain smaller schools offer your major.
  • You want less competition for opportunities (scholarships, work study positions, etc.). This could even mean there are actually more opportunities available to you because there is much less competition than there would be at a large school.
  • You actually want to know the alumni of your school so networking is more meaningful.
  • You quickly get overwhelmed and stressed around large groups of people.
  • You want your professors to be the ones actually doing all of the teaching.
  • You want your adviser to know you well and to keep on top of requirements for you, alerting you if you’re missing something or reminding you what classes you need to take.
  • You want the whole school to feel like a community. You enjoy seeing familiar faces and running into acquaintances everywhere you go.
  • Research isn’t part of your educational plan (many small schools don’t have research facilities).
  • You want all of your classes and other campus facilities to be very close to your dorm or apartment.

Take a look at these lists and try to determine which one suits you better. Try putting a star next to each statement that describes you; you may end up being surprised by which section has more stars.

Also take into consideration any of these statements that are non negotiables for you. Maybe you have more stars in the small college category, but your major is only offered at bigger schools; if you’re 100% set on your major, then your decision will be made for you.

If You’re Still Unsure

If you’ve done your research and visited schools but you still can’t decide what is right for you, a good option is to choose a large school that has smaller branch campuses. This way, you can start out at whichever type of campus you think you would prefer, and easily transfer to a larger or smaller campus if you end up being unhappy where you are. Attending a smaller branch campus of a big school can also give you the best of both worlds. You'll get many of the perks of a big school, such as a large alumni network and name recognition, but you'll get to do it all from a smaller campus.

Another option is to start out at one type of school and only take your general education (gen ed) courses that will transfer to other schools. This could also be a way to save some money if you do a year or two at a cheaper school for gen ed classes and then transfer to your dream school for the rest of your education.

Once you get started at a school or in a major, it can feel like that’s where you’re stuck and there’s no turning back. If you start out at one school and find out that you’re miserable and you made the wrong decision, you’re not stuck there for four years. Even if it means it takes you a little bit longer to finish school, an extra year or two is worth it if it makes you happy and means you’re better able to figure out the rest of your life.

One last important factor to consider if you’re on the fence is your return on investment. Will you be more likely to find a high paying job with a degree from a large, well-known university? Not necessarily. PayScale’s College Salary Report lists the colleges with the highest paid graduates, and both small and large schools make the list. In fact, the top school on the list, Harvey Mudd College, has a total undergraduate enrollment of less than 1,000 students.

Overall Cost

Other factors may be more important to you personally, but in the end, cost may trump them all. There are so many education options out there, and they all require a substantial financial investment. But some will put you into debt for years, while others will take decades to pay for.

Private schools are usually more expensive than public colleges and state universities. However, private schools tend to have larger endowments and offer more grants and scholarships. This can even out the cost of tuition to some degree.

Tuition is only about half of the overall cost of attending college. Housing, food, transportation, books and other cost-of-living expenses contribute to a much higher “sticker price.” If you're looking at schools in expensive cities like New York or Los Angeles, you're likely to be paying 2 or 3 times more in rent.

Remember Geographic Location? Hopefully you have given some thought not only to where you would like to go, but where you can afford to go. Attending college out-of-state is automatically more expensive. The tuition will be subject to non-resident fees, but you will also probably spend more on cost of living.

If money is more of an obstacle, you may want to consider living at home and studying your general requirements at a community college. It has become very common, not just for affordability. Across the board, community colleges have improved academic standards and made it easier to transfer credits to four-year universities. Many studies even show community college students going on to greater academic success than their university counterparts.

Academic Quality

Academic quality is further down on this list, but not because it is less important. It is more specific. The factors listed above will help you narrow down your list. Academic quality may very well be the determining factor in your ultimate decision.

One thing that happens when you search for colleges is you learn more about college itself. Conducting the search will help inform your ideas about what you want to study and what you want to gain from your college experience. As your list gets shorter and shorter, you should be giving more scrutiny to the academics at each school.

If your high school offers guidance counseling, you should absolutely take advantage of it. A counselor will sit down with you and help you clarify what you're looking for. They will also have literature and resources for you, including reviews of different colleges and academic programs.

Do some online research of your own. Don't just read general descriptions of colleges, but look into specific departments and programs. You should be able to find plenty of information about almost any school out there.

Rankings are fun, but they can be misleading. Publications like U.S. News & World Report have their own criteria for determining rankings. They might have different opinions than you about what is important in a college. It doesn't hurt to look at rankings, but you're going to want to dig deeper.

If you know what field you would like to study, use that to your advantage. Get the school's job placement statistics for various departments. What percentage of students is able to find jobs after graduation? If possible, seek out career professionals in that field and their input. You may get recommendations to great colleges you've never heard of.

Faculty

Academic quality and faculty go hand in hand. A college professor can be much more than just a teacher. In addition to instilling valuable skills that will prepare you for adult life, they are training you for a career and in some cases, acting as a mentor.

If you have an inkling of what you'd like to study, take a good look at the faculty in related departments. It can be hard to know how to judge faculty members without actually taking their class. Just start reading about different professors at different schools and soon you will develop a basis of comparison. If you have campus visits scheduled, try and meet with faculty members personally.

Obviously you want well-qualified teachers, but you also want personal attention. Many professors at larger universities are more focused on research and delegate teaching to graduate students. Smaller universities and community colleges tend to have more focus on the classroom and offer students greater access to their professors.

Also look at the student-to-teacher ratio and the average class size. Student/teacher ratios will give you an overall balance of the college, but can be skewed if professors focus on research. If possible get class size numbers for specific departments. Also keep in mind that freshman classes tend to be bigger, while classes in your major will be more intimate.

Campus Environment

The environment on campus is another crucial aspect of your college experience. Do you want to be in a big city or a rural setting? Do you want to live in student dorms or find your own apartment? Are you concerned about safety and campus security? Campus life varies immensely from college to college, and for some people it can be just as important as the academics in shaping their experience.

As you investigate colleges, learn what you can about the campus culture. Some schools have a bustling campus community full of events and student organizations. Others are commuter schools, where very few students, if any, live on campus and participate in extracurricular activities.

The best thing you can do is visit the campus in person; there's simply no substitute. It will give you the opportunity to walk the grounds, feel the energy, taste the food (literally), and most importantly, ask detailed questions. You may even be able to sit in on some classes.

Some students with the financial means even schedule a second campus visit. This is not an option for everyone-even one visit is expensive-but it illustrates how important it is to see the school with your own eyes. You're going to be spending four (or more) years of your life in this place. You want to be certain that it is somewhere you want to be.

Academic Majors

One of the worst situations you can get yourself into is enrolling in a college and discovering something you'd love to study, only to find out it is not offered as a major. You will have to choose a different major or transfer schools, which can be costly and extend your college career.

You've been searching for colleges based on general interests (see “Type of School” above), but now it's time to narrow it down to a few potential majors. You don't have to decide on one, just have a range of options in mind. Later on, you might be looking at two different schools. One offers all the majors on your list, the other doesn't. Having criteria like this can make your eventual decision much easier.

Ideally, if you already have a major selected you can search for a college based on that. This will give you the advantage of searching for schools in the context of a larger career/life plan. You can investigate academic departments more thoroughly and carefully select a school that's a perfect fit for you.

But that's in an ideal world. Most students only declare a major during their sophomore year and don't have that information when choosing a college. That's okay. If you've been considering all the factors listed above and have a general idea of what you want to study, you shouldn't have too many surprises.

This may be a little different if you're applying to a very small school with a limited academic focus. In that case you probably want to have a specific major in mind when you enroll. If you end up deciding on a completely different discipline-a common occurrence-then you may find yourself stuck with few alternatives.

In the end, choosing a major is the part of the process that gets down to the nitty-gritty specifics. You'll want to do plenty of research and weigh all the factors described above before devoting too much time to this topic.

Career Opportunities

As stated above, you want to have some sort of plan for your academic career. That includes giving some thought to what you want to do after graduation. You don't have to decide anything, just start thinking about it. This will help you judge whether or not a college will help you meet your goals in life.

Some colleges invest heavily in career counseling services, others do not. If possible, get some statistics on career placement from the school. A college that is active in this field will have this information readily available. Career counseling can be invaluable in helping you find internships and employment.

Some colleges and universities have an active alumni network. Think of this as career counseling on steroids. Especially with Ivy League and other prestigious universities, an alumni network keeps the school plugged into various industries and provides graduates with direct access to employers and career opportunities.

Seek Out Help

Not to frighten you, but this is a major decision in your life, possibly the biggest decision you've made so far. You don't want to make it alone. Bring other people into the process, including parents, other family members, teachers, friends, college officials and college graduates. The more input you have, the more informed your decision will be.

Chances are your parents are going to have opinions and priorities of their own. It is vital that you maintain clear and honest communication with your parents throughout the process.

Some parents are overbearing and practically make the decision for their child. Others simply have their own concerns, especially when it comes to finances, but have difficulty being a constructive part of the process. Selecting the best college is the student's decision, and it's important that he or she sits in the driver's seat.

Many high school students don't realize they have so many people to turn to for help. Take a step back and look at the adults in your life. If they are successful and happy, ask them about their college experience. Most will probably tell you that it didn't matter so much where they went to school, but what they did with the opportunity. Even those who didn't go to college will have some perspective on why and how that affected their life.

Perspective

Choosing a college is a massive undertaking with lots of different factors to consider. Many students don't give the process enough time or thoughtful consideration. This can make the selection process much more stressful and your eventual choice much more miserable.

But if you carefully weigh all of these factors, as well as some of your own, you will eventually navigate your way through the process. Take it step by step. Start general and, as you learn more about yourself and your range of options, get more and more specific. In the end, what started out as hundreds of options will be narrowed down to just a few, and you will find a great college for you.

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